A cavalcade of big-league computer and electronics companies announced plans to make it easier for consumers to tie electronic equipment and appliances into home networks.
The Home Networking API group, which includes Intel, Microsoft, Compaq, Honeywell, Mitsubishi, and Philips Electronics, is working to form open standards that would let computers control televisions, VCRs, security systems, lights, heating systems, sprinklers, and other equipment.
The standards, called application programming interfaces (APIs), will encourage the development of computer software to control the appliances from a centralized point.
With home automation systems, software can perform tasks such as automatically turning off a central vacuum system when a phone call arrives. A house also could be set in specific lighting and/or alarm modes for events such as vacations, romantic interludes, or parties.
There is a strong need right now for standards in the nascent home networking industry, said Kevin Hause, an International Data Corporation analyst.
"We have to have standards up front and early," Hause said. "As homes get networked, it's more important that we know there are going to be interoperability standards."
The alternative would be for each manufacturer to develop its own networking standards. But with so many different companies producing potentially networkable refrigerators, computers, hot tubs, or entertainment systems, common standards are more than practical.
If Sony devices couldn't talk to RCA entertainment systems or a Web-enabled ice maker, for example, "It [home networking] is never going to take off," Hause said.
This isn't the first time Microsoft has ventured into wiring up equipment in the home. Earlier, it promoted Windows CE as an operating system that could be embedded into from personal digital assistants to toasters, Hause said. The "CE" stands for consumer electronics.
But Windows CE wasn't a success in that area. "They're not many wired toasters at this point," Hause said. "Microsoft is recognizing they're not the only company in play here."
Although it may be a long time before your refrigerator is connected to the Internet, Hause foresees a day in the next decade when electronic equipment such as audio-visual systems, cable TV set-top boxes, and home security systems are connected to each other and to the Internet.
The new networking will likely be spurred by people adding home networks to connect their computers together and to the Internet. "Once you've established a home network, it's easy to ask, 'What else can I connect?' I think people will find usages for that network."
Seymour Merrin of Merrin Information Systems is more skeptical. "Oh, goody, another shot at it! Maybe this time it'll work," Merrin said.
"The question is whether they've actually talked to customers and found out what they want."
The Home API group intends to release a software development kit (SDK) running on Microsoft Windows that will let software developers write programs that can connect to home appliances. The development kit is scheduled for release in the first half of 1999, and development kits are expected for other platforms as well.
The presence of the software corporation Microsoft, the computer manufacturer Compaq, and several consumer electronics companies is important for the success of the working group, Hause said. But he added that "We'd like to see some cooperation outside of Microsoft," by including other software companies such as Novell.
IBM is involved in its own home network project, Home Director, which includes a computer running Windows software as well as new wiring. IBM is creating partnerships with several construction companies to install the necessary infrastructure.