Network: Link up to the future

The technology to control all our home appliances has finally arrived.
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If you're one of those people who still have trouble programming the video, just wait until you see what Sun Microsystems and Sony have got lined up for you. Recently, some of the world's largest computer and consumer electronics companies have been queuing up to announce "home networking" initiatives.

The idea of the networked home isn't new, of course. There have been several attempts to produce "the home of the future", in which electrical items such as lights, television set and washing machine are all linked and controlled by a central computer. There was even a cult film, Demon Seed, in which Julie Christie's computerised home took a fancy to her and impregnated her with a silicon baby that looked like a Dualit toaster.

None of these attempts has ever got off the drawing-board, but recent announcements from Microsoft and its various rivals suggest that they're making some real progress at last. The most ambitious home network initiative was announced by Sun Microsystems, the company that developed the Java programming language, in January. For several months, Sun has been working on a project called Jini (pronounced "genie"). Jini is based on Java, and any device can be "Jini-enabled" by adding a low-cost computer chip that can understand Java programming commands. This means that just about any electrical device you can think of can become part of a Jini network - computers, cameras, VCRs, even your toaster and your kettle.

When you plug a device into the Jini network, it announces its presence to a central device called a lookup service. This makes a note of all the devices connected to the network and acts as a kind of switchboard that allows them to communicate with each other. Suppose you were on holiday and you wanted to print some pictures that you'd taken with a digital camera. When you got back to your hotel room you could plug your camera into the hotel's Jini network. The camera would send a message to the lookup service saying: "Hi, I'm a camera and I'm looking for a printer." The lookup service would then locate the nearest printer on the network and connect the camera to the printer for you.

Extend this idea into your home and you could have a universal remote control unit that controls just about every electrical item in your home, from a simple light switch to your central heating system or more conventional devices such as the CD player and VCR.

But the really impressive thing about Jini is that it's not limited to individual locations. Kinko's, the international chain of printing shops, has said that it could use Jini on the Internet to allow people to send documents to printing equipment in any of its bureaux worldwide. This means that Jini has the potential to create a new worldwide network that is even faster than the Internet.

"We're far away from the average citizen understanding what this means," said Billy Moon of Ericsson, which plans to develop Jini-enabled mobile phones and pagers in the near future. "But the potential of Jini is enormous - everything can be on the network."

Needless to say, Microsoft isn't very keen on the idea of a worldwide network that is based on Java. It wants the world to use its Windows technology, so Microsoft recently announced its Universal Plug and Play initiative. Universal Plug and Play is a more limited system than Jini, as it concentrates primarily on interconnecting devices within the home. Microsoft lined up an impressive list of companies to announce their support for its plans, including Intel, AT&T, Compaq and Dell. However, details of exactly how Universal Plug and Play will work remain vague. This is in contrast to Sun's demonstration of Jini, which showed the system in operation, controlling a number of devices.

This suggests that the Universal Plug and Play announcement was merely a spoiler, intended to draw attention away from its arch-rival, Sun. But Microsoft might have been better off worrying about competition from outside the computer industry. The opening speech at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month was given by Howard Stringer of Sony, which has joined several other consumer electronics companies to launch a home networking system called HAVI - home audio/video interoperability.

HAVI is the most modest of these home networking systems. It isn't designed to link your toilet to your toaster or to any other appliance in your home. Instead, it focuses specifically on audio and video equipment such as CD players, VCRs and television sets. Any HAVI device on a network can make use of the features and facilities of any other device, so a typical HAVI network would use the screen of a TV as the main interface to your VCR, CD or DVD player. "Your digital television will become the centre-piece, the nerve centre of the home of the future," said Stringer. "It will perform the one magic trick that consumers want most of all, allowing them seamlessly to access their PC and audio-video functions from a single control."

Sony and the other HAVI organisers claim that they will release their first HAVI equipment before the end of this year, and they are also working with Sun to allow HAVI and Jini to work together. This means that HAVI could be used as the main networking system inside individual homes, and could also act as the link that connects your home to a wider, global Jini network.

But before all this interoperability and networking can take place, computer manufacturers and consumer electronics companies must co-operate to ensure that all their products can work together properly. Sony recognises this and Stringer argues that "we have to change the way we do business. There must be an unprecedented level of co-operation."

However, if you look at the list of companies in the HAVI group - including Sony, Hitachi, Matsushita and Philips - you see that these same companies have spent the last few years squabbling over seven different versions of the DVD format. In other words, the networked home may be technically possible, but it's not going to happen unless the consumer electronics industry gets its act together for a change. That's bad news for gadget freaks, but at least Julie Christie can relax for a while.