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Microsoft aims to network entire home

The software giant will release a hardware and software developer kit designed to let companies link everything from light switches to refrigerators to computers.

SEATTLE--Microsoft is nearing its goal to have all manner of home equipment join a network, with a hardware and software developer kit due by the end of the year to let companies link everything from light switches to refrigerators to computers.

To accomplish this task, Microsoft advocates use of a standard called Simple Control Protocol (SCP), a communication method that lets different devices find each other and control each other. In combination with Israel-based Itran Communications, Microsoft will release an SCP developer kit by the end of the year, said Larry Buerk, a lead program manager of Microsoft's eHome division.

The developer kit will be a key milestone in Microsoft's plan to extend its domain from controlling not only PC-oriented devices such as printers and digital cameras but also home security systems, garage doors and thermostats. Such a move could help make PCs as mandatory as telephones while amplifying Microsoft's influence with a new collection of companies.

Microsoft's initial goal is to have SCP add less than $5 to the cost of a device, a price that means it's more likely to show up first in more expensive systems such as furnaces than in light switches.

Though SCP doesn't require a PC, it would elevate the status of a PC in the electronic pecking order. Microsoft will support SCP in the successor to its Windows XP, code-named Longhorn and due in the second half of 2004, the company said Tuesday at WinHEC, a conference to try to align hardware engineers from business partners with Microsoft's software agenda.

Microsoft will license SCP to others royalty-free, Buerk said. "We're trying to make that the standard in the market," though there are competitors such as the years-old but very basic X10, the more recent Cebus and Sun Microsystems' Jini. While Jini attracted early partners such as Whirlpool, Sun has been recasting Jini as better for governing software processes on servers than gadgets.

Microsoft believes SCP will prevail because it's an extension of the Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) technology it ships in Window Me and XP.

UPnP emerged in 1999 as a counter to Jini and a way to let electronic gadgets find each other on the network. SCP, though, is a variation that's designed especially for devices that don't have the computing horsepower of even a comparatively feeble machine such as a printer.

UPnP speaks the networking standard of the Internet, TCP/IP, but SCP won't require that, Buerk said. It's designed to work on a system with as little as 512 bytes of memory--about as much space as it takes to store a paragraph of text. For connecting to the broader UPnP networks, SCP devices will need a PC that can front for the devices, he said.

Itran's chip, the IT800, is expected to be in production in the third quarter or early fourth quarter of 2002, Buerk added. The Microsoft-Itran development kit that developers can use to test the SCP waters will be available in beta form by June and in final form by the end of the year.

SCP has three levels of security, he said, to ensure that a homeowner's next-door neighbors can't mess with his thermostat or that a hacker on the Internet cracking a PC and using the UPnP connection can't shut down the home security alarm. Security is an important consideration, given the high-profile problem that afflicted UPnP in 2001.

All SCP communications have 128-bit encryption, with the lowest security level using a standard key. The "private" mode uses a security key based on the device's serial number transmitted over the network, and the "secure" mode uses a key that's never transmitted.

Meanwhile, Microsoft also is trying to let people control more devices with remote controls through its "Freestyle" plan. Freestyle will ship near the end of the year, but Microsoft will enable the first remote control support in the Windows XP service patch 1, due mid-2002, said Michelle Niethammer, a program manager in the eHome division.

The first support will give Windows the ability to understand a few basic commands--play, pause, record, fast-forward, rewind, channel up and channel down. Through an infrared emitter, those commands can be relayed to control set-top boxes, Niethammer said, a first step in Microsoft's hope to have a universal remote control that would make the PC the hub for all commands issued to DVD players, TVs, radio receivers and other remote-controlled devices.

Niethammer encouraged computer manufacturing partners to start including remote controls along with their systems or to make them available as add-on components.

As reported, Microsoft has licensed Philips remote control technology and will let partners use it in Windows-branded remote controls.