Cisco in home networking pact with Sun, GTE, Whirlpool

The giant intends to deliver an "Internet home gateway" device by the fall of this year, allowing a family to link multiple PCs--and later smart appliances--to a high-speed Net connection.

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Cisco Systems plans to launch a home networking initiative tomorrow highlighted by the introduction of new technology and partnerships with Sun Microsystems, GTE and appliance manufacturer Whirlpool.

The San Jose, Calif.-based giant intends to deliver an "Internet home gateway" device by the fall of this year, allowing a family to link multiple PCs to a high-speed Net connection. Company executives believe such technology, along with joint development work with third-party companies, will eventually lead to a Web-enabled home in which consumer users will be able to tap into recipes on the stove or procure a grocery list from the refrigerator, for example.

The announcement, to be made at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, underscores technology companies' broad efforts to reach the mass market. Cisco's plans for residential networking have been in the works for some time, though the company has disclosed few details.

"I think Cisco's a natural for developing networking technology, whether it's for the Fortune 1000 or residences," said John Armstrong, analyst with market researcher Dataquest. "Cisco has to stake its claim."

Many skeptics believe it will be some time before mainstream consumers choose to network their homes, however, and even longer before typical home appliances will be accessible over the Web. For a consumer networking strategy to work, one high-tech trend will have to feed into another, some analysts have predicted.

Industry insiders believe once high-speed cable or digital subscriber line (DSL) technology reaches critical mass, they will open up more opportunities in the home. Faster, more powerful connections, the thinking goes, will lead consumers to link their PCs, printers and other devices to a central, online "hub." That, in turn, could lead to a variety of inventive uses for home appliances.

Cisco's Internet home gateway and partnerships with Sun, GTE and Whirlpool will result in a set of residential Net services that consumers can tap into, according to the companies. This summer, for instance, GTE will spearhead trials of a series of "connected family" technologies from Cisco and Sun.

The Internet home gateway technology will initially support DSL, but Cisco executives said versions for cable and high-speed wireless connections will likely follow.

Cisco and its partners in the venture plan to demonstrate technology prototypes this week in Las Vegas. "It's going to take real homes, real digital communities, for people to see that this is for real," said Kristine Stewart, director of marketing for Cisco's consumer line of business.

Analysts say there is a huge market for the type of technology Cisco plans to provide. Cahners In-Stat Group predicts the market for Net-ready consumer devices will reach $8 billion by 2002.

Cisco has classically shied away from low-margin, consumer-oriented products, industry observers have noted, but the company's ability to tap a sprawling roster of Internet service provider customers could serve as a sales channel.

"They're going to have to arm-twist a lot of these service providers into taking these things and selling them to their customer base," said Karuna Uppal, an analyst with industry consultants the Yankee Group.

In joining the consumer fray, Cisco will add itself to a chorus of companies betting on the viability of a networked home as a potential revenue driver.

A mix of companies--including 3Com, Motorola, S3's Diamond Multimedia, PC makers like Dell Computer and start-ups like 2Wire--are working on gateway products. 3Com, for example, plans to build a range of gateway devices that specialize in Internet telephony, and streaming audio and video. Diamond will ship a gateway this quarter.

Cisco's gateway, like others, will support a standard from the Home Phone Networking Alliance, which allows consumers to use existing home phone lines to network their devices.

Sun will provide application software based on its Java programming language and Jini technology. That partnership seems to ally Cisco with Sun against a similar home networking partnership struck between networking rival 3Com and software giant Microsoft.

Cisco also plans to work with Whirlpool to make its appliances more intelligent. But some see that portion of the initiative as further down the road.

"I don't think it's going to result in Cisco-powered dishwashers in the near future," Uppal said.