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Microsoft touts home networking standard

In a keynote speech, vice president Craig Mundie introduces software that, to no one's surprise, could lead to electronic homes controlled by Windows 2000.

LAS VEGAS--Microsoft is proposing a networking standard that will help tie together the increasing numbers of "smart" electronics devices against a backdrop of similar competing efforts from Sun Microsystems, Sony, and others.

As expected, Microsoft senior vice president of consumer strategy Craig Mundie yesterday introduced an initiative called Universal Plug and Play during his keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Show here.

The software technology would allow disparate devices to be hooked into a home network with relative ease, Mundie explained. Like Sun Microsystems' Jini, Universal Plug and Play would streamline connectivity so that a game player or a refrigerator conforming to the standard could be plugged into a network and have its features automatically available for use by other devices on the network.

"We want to bridge the gap between appliances, products, and computers," Mundie told the audience. Microsoft wants to easily connect existing intelligent devices such as computers to a growing class of what Mundie termed "smart objects."

So do a lot of other companies. A large number of firms have talked up plans for home networking at the CES show, and companies such as Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard, Lucent, Intel, and others are standing behind Microsoft's initiative.

Just as important, though, are the names of those absent from the list, including the three largest consumer electronics companies in the world--Matsushita, Sony, and Philips, which are working on a different home networking standard. Sun Microsystems is also offering up a technology called "Jini" that is pursuing the goal of tying together disparate appliances and computer platforms together in a home or even office environment.

At the heart of the explosion of interest in home networking: Companies are hoping to define who will be able to provide advanced services to homes of the future, and hence, the ability to enter and control new markets.

Because Universal Plug and Play is a proposed element of Microsoft's next operating system, Windows 2000 could act as the nerve center of a home network, monitoring appliances or managing security cameras.

A Windows 2000-centric home network, however, would also lead to a home largely controlled by the operating system. While such a development would have commercial applications, at least one analyst raised a question.

"What if your PC crashes?" he asked rhetorically. Microsoft executives said other devices on the network can continue to function without a central control unit, although presumably these devices would lose some of their advanced features, like the ability to remotely turn off a heating system.

Mundie's speech capped off a day that will likely go down in the annals of the home networking movement. Networking giant Cisco rolled out a bevy of products and initiatives for the home networking market, the first time the company has gone into the consumer market.

Microsoft has been looking into ways to make computer networks automatically reconfigure themselves since 1996. In a project called Millennium, engineers are studying an advanced operating system that would lower costs by carrying more of the networking burden itself and lessening the work involved in adding applications to the system. Yesterday's announcement appears to be the first fruits of that project.

Later this year, Sun is expected to announce the first product using its Jini technology, which allows digital devices such as digital cameras to connect easily to computer networks.