For two home devices, wireless is more

New software promises to turn handheld computers into universal remote controls, and hardware from Toshiba aims to be a hub for photos, music and data.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
3 min read
Home networking may have found the wireless equivalents of the skeleton key and the fuse box.

Two products introduced on Tuesday hold out the prospect of putting a number of household electronics functions in a single location. One is software that its manufacturer says will let handheld computers function as a universal remote control for television sets and other consumer-electronics devices. The other is hardware from Toshiba in the form of a wireless hub for a variety of data files.

The products arrive in a home-networking market that's still under construction. Microsoft, for instance, has been pushing its eHome initiative, which aims to bring together the work done by PCs, stereos and TV sets. Analysts say consumer interest in so-called convergence is healthy, but that the technology isn't yet easy enough to use.

Universal Electronics has its eye on easy-to-use devices. The Cypress, Calif.-based manufacturer of remote controls for televisions and set-top boxes is offering its Nevo software, designed to turn handheld computers, such as those based on Microsoft's Pocket PC, into remote controls. The wireless link occurs via infrared light--the same technology used by traditional remote controls.

Nevo-enabled devices, the company said, will enable users to easily control and interact with any consumer-electronics appliance in the home or office. The software's user interface uses a wheel-like image to arrange an array of devices on a handheld's touch screen. Users can select preprogrammed devices or set up hot keys that go directly to a specific device or program.

The company is targeting handheld computers first, but is also pursuing relationships with PC makers, according to published reports.

Ultimately, Universal Electronics wants companies to use Nevo to link handhelds or PCs for greater levels of home automation. A consumer could, for instance, use a Nevo-enabled system to set up a program to turn out lights or turn down the heat at given times.

Toshiba, meanwhile, has unveiled a data hub for the home, the Magnia SG20 Wireless Media Center, which uses 802.11b wireless technology to let consumers share an Internet connection and route photo, music and data files through a centralized system. It's essentially a PC server that can store files and connect with a number of PC-related products. The 802.11b radio frequency protocol allows sharing of an Internet connection and files over a short distance, usually a few hundred feet--plenty for a home or apartment.

The SG20 is the first of a series of products that the company's PC division will introduce that targets the convergence of home electronics and personal computing. Toshiba expects families to use the device, which starts at $1,150, as a way to help network their growing number of PCs and other devices as well as provide a central point for Internet access, printing and storing files.

Consumers could, for instance, enhance home security by setting up as many as four networked cameras to be viewed and managed by client computers and PDAs (personal digital assistants) on the local area network (LAN), or from remote PCs through included VPN (Virtual Private Network) software, Toshiba said. The SG20 also has a built-in content filtering feature and a configurable firewall.

If consumers were to combine the Universal Electronics and Toshiba technologies on a wireless handheld device similar to Toshiba's new e740 Pocket PC, or possibly a desktop PC, they might one day find themselves simultaneously channel surfing, Web surfing, scheduling upcoming events and printing out a photograph.

But PCs and handhelds are subject to quirks ranging from hardware problems to software incompatibilities. The question remains open as to how many people will trust their PC to record the right program or shut off the lights and turn down the heat at night. As for remote controls, the traditional versions have several advantages: simplicity and reliability, requiring an occasional change of batteries, and never forcing a user to reboot.