You've Got Toast!

Go to your toaster. Look at it. Pet it. Is it doing okay? Does it want an upgrade? Is it toasting perfectly, just the way you like it?

Does it love you?

If it seems unnatural to be so intimate with a household appliance, you might not be ready for the future. At least, the future as envisioned by Microsoft and Sun Microsystems at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month.

At CES, about 120,000 retailers, vendors and journalists wandered the cavernous exposition halls of the convention center and surrounding hotels, where 1.1 million square feet of display space was occupied by thousands of electronics companies, from A&B Audio Video to the Zoran Corporation.

Many displays were massive installations resembling hipster apartments, complete with flat HDTVs, Scandinavian furniture and attractive young Americans wearing headset microphones and Old Navy fleece. It's like walking onto the set of Friends and finding Monica and Chandler earnestly pushing DVD players.

After several hours roaming the halls, the mind suffers a sort of meltdown: the gadgets (a Casio wristwatch that plays compressed MP3 discs!), the spokespeople (Panasonic's fleet of supermodels!), the gimmicks (America Online's idiotic bantering robot!), the increasingly heavy load of four-color brochures and row upon row of products. Out of the information overload, two definitive trends emerged.

The first is the continued progression of music and television to digital formats as they become permanently intertwined with the Internet. Music will be downloaded from the Web, then downloaded again into portable players, home systems and car stereos. Products such as WebTV will allow you to chat with other viewers watching the same program, play along with game shows and watch downloaded movies in digital format.

The second trend showcased at CES is the evolution of the networked home -- where your house becomes an Internet portal with embedded technology in every appliance, from light switches to dishwashers to coffee makers. Such "net appliances" use your existing AC electrical wiring as their information conduit, and are controlled by voice-activation or using a cell phone as a universal remote control.

If you're at work, for instance, you can monitor and control your home security cameras, preheat the oven or program your VCR (which, actually, will not be a video cassette recorder, but a hard drive that records programs in a digital format).

"The home itself will almost be like a computing system," said Microsoft CEO Bill Gates during his keynote speech.

The Microsoft concept home, a sprawling exhibit in the main exhibition hall, includes a living room, garage, bedroom, media room, home office and kitchen. Each is occupied by an actor performing Microsoft's vision of the daily routine of the future, a routine that consists solely of using Microsoft products.

In the kitchen, a balding, middle-aged man in a bathrobe prepares breakfast and makes some phone calls.

"I'm going to check my Hotmail account from my kitchen countertop, but I want to warn you, this might take a while," he says, setting up the most obvious of jokes, "because I'm verrry popular."

His account shows a single new message. It's from GE, and says it's been two months since he replaced his GE refrigerator's water filter.

The actor looks amazed: "Who do you know that gets e-mail from their kitchen appliances?"

Several hours later, the man is still in the kitchen, saying the same jokes, making the same calls, checking the same e-mail. Except it's not the same person -- it's a different balding, middle-aged actor in a bathrobe working the second shift. He's been replaced, along with the other members of the Microsoft "household" (a teenage girl in the bedroom, a businessman in the home office, etc.).

The effect is somewhat creepy, as if a whole family were interchangeable Microsoft pod people.

The Sun Microsystems' ".com home" is more soothing -- earth tones, plants, no actors and less pushy name-brand monopoly. The vision is fundamentally the same, however -- a kitchen bar-code scanner for adding items to your online grocery shopping list, a Mr. Coffee with remote access "water status alert" and "brewing control," a dishwasher that "can be updated with the newest power-saving features."

It's a supposed Internet utopia. Browse your home. Download the kitchen. Double-click on the blender. The home-control of a James Bond villain combined with the houseware futurama of the Jetsons.

In his keynote, Gates reminds the audience that his $50 million Lake Washington mansion near Seattle is a networked home. And one wonders: How often does Gates' mansion crash? We all know what happens when Windows 98 goes down. What happens when your whole home goes down?

Ask such questions to Microsoft and Sun representatives at CES, and they blink and look at you somewhat annoyed, as if such thoughts are not allowed.

"We've done focus groups, and people are looking for their lifestyles to be made simpler and to eliminate a lot of household chores," says Darlene M. Janis, a GTE spokesperson at the Sun Microsystems exhibit. "Now you won't have to worry about running to the grocery store."

True, but there will be new worries to replace the old ones.

The problem with home networking is that it takes practical and perfectly functional machines and makes them more complex and expensive in order to create a new advertising route to consumers. Granted, your dishwasher may get repaired faster if the dishwasher realizes it's broken before you do, but it also will contain more new technology that could go on the blink. Plus you will regularly receive spam from Whirlpool urging you to upgrade to Dishwasher 4.0 lest you miss out on all the new amazing things your dishwasher can do.

Then there's the cultural implications of home networking. We love the Internet because it connects us to information and, to a degree, people. But networked homes will only get us closer to our things, our Best Buy purchases. It's yet another layer of our societal cocoon for us to snuggle into.

And here's yet another concern: If you can access your interconnected home system by a Palm Pilot, why can't anybody else? A hacker could watch you sleep on your security system cameras, read your daily planner, know the contents of your refrigerator -- the ultimate in electronic voyeurism or, if used by a more active criminal, the ultimate burglary tool.

"Those are all excellent questions," says Microsoft representative James Yi, who worked on Microsoft's concept home in Redmond, Washington. "The only way to answer that is that future technology will eventually catch up. Not too long ago, we had problems getting microwaves and refrigerators to work correctly. And two and three years ago, people were hesitant to turn over their credit card to Internet vendors."

But not without cause. Recently a teenager in Russia stole the credit card information of customers from a popular online retailer. And hackers routinely deface government Web sites.

"I'm sure there will be ways of [hacking into a home system]," he says. "The technology will just have to work. It has to -- none of this will happen unless people can trust it.

"Realize that the most popular room in a house is the kitchen and the most popular appliance is the refrigerator -- it's where people leave messages for each other. We're not trying to replace the refrigerator, we just want to make it a little better, bring it into the future."

The first net appliances will be introduced in 2001. One Maryland home networking company, Home Automated Living, has a new system called the HAL 3000.

In the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the environment-controlling computer HAL 9000 attempts to kill the men plotting against it. Psychotic HALs are unlikely. But the toasters of tomorrow might burn our breakfasts if we ignore their e-mails.

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Contact James Hibberd at his online address: [email protected]

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd