The wired home needs software to help "smart" appliances and devices talk to each other and the Internet, and executives from Sun Microsystems and Microsoft today tried to convince attendees here at the Consumer Electronics Show that their companies are the right ones for the job.
Sun chief executive Scott McNealy and Microsoft vice president Craig Mundie laid out competing schemes for the networked home, a house filled with digital appliances and entertainment devices employing many different protocols and technologies. Both companies are offering software solutions to the problem of how disparate products from a wide range of manufacturers will effectively interoperate.
Like many at the leading trade show, McNealy and Mundie painted a picture of typically non-networked devices--stereos, refrigerators, televisions and home appliances--empowered with the same kind of connectivity as the PC.
In his keynote address, McNealy took customary jabs at rival Microsoft and its products. Referring to Windows CE--Microsoft's scaled down operating system for appliances and devices--as Wince, McNealy asserted that the Redmond, Wash., software behemoth has failed to create robust or stable software in the desktop world, and should not be trusted with the task for the next frontier: networked homes.
This home of the future needs an operating system as a common environment, he asserted. "I can guarantee it won't be Windows CE," he said. "There isn't room [on small devices] for the control-alt-delete buttons."
Striking a decidedly less antagonistic note, Mundie, head of Microsoft's consumer division, advocated a "let's just get along" approach to software development in the age of the networked home. Mundie spoke to a smaller group, in a speech directly preceding McNealy's.
"Today is a technological nightmare" in terms of devices and products working together, he said. "Standards require lots of companies who must work together."
Under McNealy's vision, these devices will run on Palo Alto, Calif.-based Sun's Java environment, while communicating via its Jini software. For Microsoft's part, the devices would be best served by communicating directly, using its Universal Plug and Play technology. Both executives touted the strides each proprietary technology has made in the last year, with each counting more licensees, partners and customers.
McNealy focused on kitchen appliances like refrigerators empowered with chips and connectivity options. The benefits of this networking are still somewhat unclear, but appear to largely consist of being able to order more groceries from the refrigerator and keep an eye on children in all rooms of the house via networked video cameras.
"Some people call it 'big brother,' but I call it 'father,'" McNealy said, asserting that networked cameras can be an invaluable help to worried parents, despite the potential privacy implications. "If I could embed a locator chip in my kids, I would. Who knows where their kids are all the time?"
Mundie mainly spoke about the enhancements digital technology brings to typical entertainment systems.
"The PC is driving fundamental enhancements in music consumption," he said. "People are willing to accept the PC as a facilitator."
Mundie repeatedly pointed to the XML Web development language as the key to interoperability among personalized Web services and devices. "XML is the lingua franca," of the Internet, he said. "It's critical to create an environment where devices come together seamlessly."
Sun's chief executive also took time during his comments to promote the notion of "free" hardware--specifically free consumer electronics appliances--supported by service contracts. Citing as examples free cell phones, computers and software, McNealy predicted that soon all hardware would be supported not by upfront revenues, but by ongoing service contracts.
"That's the model--most of the things we own, we don't care about anyway," he said, taking the opportunity to get in another potshot at Microsoft. "Don't buy Windows 2000. Buy Linux," he pleaded.