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Cyberhomes on the horizon?

IBM is encouraging home builders to add heating, security, and electrical systems controlled by discreet PC "servers" in new homes.

The cyberhome of the future is coming to a neighborhood near you.

IBM is encouraging home builders to incorporate heating, security, and electrical systems controlled by discreet PC "servers" in new homes. One San Francisco Bay Area real estate development will start to market networked homes this summer.

Meanwhile, Sony is set to show off a futuristic cable set-top box that will be the hub of a home entertainment network that offers high-speed Internet access.

The home network--an elaborate electronic architecture that will allow users to monitor or remotely operate ovens, security cameras, and even hot tubs--has long been a dream for many PC vendors. Exciting the public about these technologies, however, has proven challenging.

IBM's first product in this area was the Home Director, a simple home server that could tie household appliances such as air conditioners, lights, coffee makers, and alarms together. Sold at retail stores, Home Director worked with existing home wiring, but few do-it-yourselfers wanted to take on the chore of setting up a computer network.

Undaunted, Big Blue is now unveiling Home Director Professional, a newer, more powerful version of the home server that will be sold to the public as an supplemental feature for new construction, said Mary Walker, program director of consumer solutions at IBM. Real estate developers and contractors will offer it as an extra feature on midrange to high-end homes.

The system consists of a computer, wiring, and appliance controllers. The computer uses a 233-MHz Pentium processor, a customized version of Windows 95, and special software for controlling devices such as alarms, video cameras, entertainment appliances, lights, heating and air conditioning units, and other appliances.

Using the system, home owners can create a closed-circuit channel on their TVs, on which they can view scenes captured on security cameras or baby monitors placed elsewhere in the house. In the future, users may be able to monitor the electricity consumption of different appliances or receive warnings when one of the appliances fails.

Remotely, home owners can perform such tasks as turning on hot tubs at the office so that they will be warm upon arrival, or tuning on outside lights, said Mark Schmidt, program director for IBM's Home Director products.

Demonstration homes have already been built in Oklahoma City and Florida. Shea Homes will offer the IBM solution as an option in a housing development that will open in the Bay Area this July, Schmidt added.

Unfortunately, Internet sharing is not available now, IBM admits. Eventually, the Home Director will allow homes with one Internet connection to hook up two to three PCs or other devices to this same connection. At the moment, however, most home communication technology is not robust enough to allow for "bandwidth splitting," said Walker.

IBM says the primary advantage of getting home builders involved is that it's easier to install the systems in new homes. Home Director Professional requires special wiring that is relatively inexpensive to install--if installed as the home is being built. Remodeling a home to install wires in existing homes, by contrast, can be prohibitively expensive.

Even so, the overall package--which includes the server and network-able systems like thermostats, lighting systems, and so on--is not cheap. It will typically cost 2 to 3 percent of a mortgage, IBM product managers told CNET'S NEWS.COM in an interview. As a result, the company is aiming the product for more upscale homes in the $300,000 and $700,000 price range. IBM hastens to add Home Director Professional is less costly than previous home automation technologies.

But analysts wonder if it's worth it. "Is it really necessary yet?" asks Bruce Kasrel, senior analyst with Forrester Research. There's a limited number of people who actually need home networking, he says, and not enough digital devices that would benefit from being able to share data.

Kasrel predicts that home networking won't begin to really take off until 2002, when more devices are capable of using the Internet to offer some advantage to consumers. For instance, the deregulation of the electric industry could lead to a situation where an appliance could automatically shop for the power it needs from various utilities over the Internet, resulting in savings.

IBM isn't the only company working on home networking. A number of Japanese companies--Matsushita Electric Industrial, NEC, Sony, and Hitachi--have reportedly launched divisions to develop some form of home server.

Sony will be among the first Japanese companies to preview its home networking concept. At the upcoming National Cable Television Association trade show, Sony will show a General Instrument digital set-top box that uses Sony's own operating system and home networking software.

The prototype set-top box will permit users to control audiovisual equipment such as digital camcorders, DVD players, and other devices that have "FireWire," a high-speed interconnect (or "plug-and-play") technology. A search function will offer the ability to find content by topic from all the devices, including broadcast transmissions or a library of DVD discs. Users can also plug in cameras and view images on a television, and will be able to access Internet content at speeds up to 30 mbps.