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IBM makes home-networking stride

Big Blue unveils the first mainstream application of its home-networking plan: New homes in Roanoke, Va.'s Tinker Creek subdivision will let owners control stoves from the office.

    Worried that you forgot to close the garage door this morning?

    If you live in the Tinker Creek subdivision in Roanoke, Va., you could soon log on from work and find out, and even shut the door remotely if you needed to. IBM said Monday that it has partnered with Commonwealth Builders to provide home-automation technology in 170 new homes, the first real-world, mainstream application of Big Blue's home-networking strategy. The homes will cost about $220,000 apiece, according to IBM.

    People who have the new systems will be able to control devices like their heaters and stoves remotely and check that their doors are locked. The homes will feature the NetAppliance gateway from Taiwan-based CP Tech, which is built on IBM's WebSphere Studio Device Developer and Tivoli Device Manager software. The gateway, which links the internal home network with external systems, will run IBM's WebSphere Everyplace Embedded Software.

    IBM said the rollout marks the launch of a home-networking strategy it's been working on for years: equipping mainstream consumers with technology to help them manage their daily lives.

    "This is part of a vision of pervasive computing we've had for some time," Gene Cox, director of mobility solutions for IBM Pervasive Computing unit, said. "This stuff was always available if you had enough money. These are medium-priced homes, not the mansion on the hill."

    Companies have long promised gee-whiz technology for the home that would do everything but greet people at the door with a martini after a long day at the office. However, many of the projects fizzled out before hitting the market because they were either too costly or too complex for the average consumer.

    But home-networking plans seem to be picking up steam again among tech companies, at least in concept.

    Bill Gates spent much of his speech at the last Comdex confab talking about smart objects for the home, including connected kitchen appliances. And kitchen gadgets such as Tonight's Menu and the Icebox device were among the stars of the recent Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas. What's more, this month, Internet Home Alliance members including IBM and Hewlett-Packard are introducing the Mealtime Pilot, a test project that lets people manage their kitchen remotely.

    IBM's Cox said the new system at Tinker Creek will gradually allow customers to access more home-automation services. Right now, the system is focusing on security and management of energy appliances such as the heater or stove. But Cox said the technology lays the groundwork for other companies to provide more home-networking services and products to consumers in the future, including security services that could take photos of break-ins and e-mail them to police, and appliances that notify owners when they need repairs.

    "It's truly a foundation for lots of future services," Cox said.