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Microsoft joins home-networking alliance

The software colossus and seven other new members sign onto the Internet Home Alliance, signaling a growing interest in high-tech homes.

Microsoft is one of eight new companies joining a group dedicated to promoting the connected home.

Microsoft said it will announce its membership in the Internet Home Alliance (IHA) on July 22. The IHA brings together companies from a wide variety of sectors--including kitchen appliance makers, software vendors, and hardware companies--to conduct tests of wired rooms involving real consumers.

For example, in March the group launched that allowed participants to experiment with interconnected kitchen devices including a Polara refrigerated range from Whirlpool, a "flipscreen entertainment center" from Icebox, integration services from IBM and a printer from HP.

Jonathan Cluts, director of consumer prototyping and strategy at Microsoft, said last week that the company was eager to join so it could work with other companies and gauge where the home-networking market is headed.

"In order for this to really succeed, you need to have a wide range of companies working on it," Cluts said.

Other new IHA members include telecom companies SBC Communications and Bell Canada, automation software maker SupportSoft, developers Arvida and Catellus Urban Development, antenna maker Cushcraft and online grocer Peapod, the IHA said.

The organization currently has more than two dozen members, including IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, Sun Microsystems and Whirlpool.

Microsoft hopes to play a role in helping to connect home devices with its software. The company already has made inroads into the home with products including its Media Center, which connects home entertainment devices; its MSN Internet service; and its Xbox gaming console. What's more, Bill Gates spent much of his speech at the last Comdex confab talking about releasing smart objects for the home, including connected kitchen appliances

The decision by Microsoft and SBC to join the IHA indicates that more major companies are becoming interested in the wired home, a market traditionally overlooked by technologists, who've chosen to focus instead on consumer electronics or software and services for businesses.

But as prices for home technology come down and the average consumer becomes more tech-savvy, Cluts said, people are going to expect a more high-tech home in coming years. "As you add and add more devices that are smart in some way in the future, you're going to be less and less willing to put up with devices that don't communicate with each other."

Cluts said initiatives like the Internet Home Alliance are important because they allow companies to work out the glitches across the network before products are sold. After all, consumers are less likely to put up with problematic devices or software in the home than they might be in an office, where an on-site IT helper is usually just a phone call away.