The garden fence may be a thing of the past, as you start to swap gossip and useful local information with your neighbours via your PC. By Andrew Mylius
Computers are rapidly becoming a normal item of domestic hardware, with five million Britons able to access the Internet. Next year, the number will be more than eight million.

The virtual landscape of the Net has recently started to deliver functions people - normal ones - actually want. And in so doing, it looks set to change the way we live. Professor Andrew Graham of Balliol College, Oxford, who is researching the subject, says: "There is absolutely no doubt that e-mail will be used by everybody. It will be a normal way to exchange information". But e-mail is merely the tip of the iceberg.

The information and communications technology (ICT) revolution looks set to be slow but steady. A range of easy-to-use applications with the relevance of e-mail still needs to develop. At Microsoft, Ruth Bradshaw says that, having cornered the market in business-sector software, the American megalith is now focusing on the home market.

Amazingly, there has been no systematic research into how people actually use the Net at home, but now an experiment run by Microsoft in Islington, London (being monitored by the Economic and Social Research Council) gives some clues as to how ICT could affect us.

Under the name MSN Street, a community of 23 houses - 60 people - went on-line 12 months ago. People who already worked from home swiftly found the Net improved their business communication. Others started to bring work home, which meant they had to go to the office less.

ICT has, like it or not, started to change the ways people work - where they do it, when, and how. However, not everyone wanted a home-office. Microsoft group marketing manager Oliver Roll describes the Internet as "every library in the world, but without an index and without a librarian to help you". Overwhelming.

MSN Street tackled this by creating a local area network that was relevant to the street's residents. The street's virtual bulletin board became a site for neighbours to exchange information about local services, shops and restaurants; people organised babysitting, children asked for help with homework; last year someone urged everybody to catch a glimpse of comet Hale-Bopp.

Very swiftly, a new social-technological ecology started to emerge. "Sometimes it's taken me years to speak to people", says Janet White, who has lived in the street for 10 years. "They have to give birth or have puppies before you find whatever it is that is going to make you say the first thing."

As a forum for common needs and concerns - for a plumber or reliable window cleaner, a spate of burglaries, the route of the Channel Tunnel rail link, and a campaign against grey quirrels - the Internet has become a meeting place. "A fear was that people would become withdrawn. They will now come over and talk if I'm in the garden," Pearson Philips, a resident, remarks.

The Islington experiment is soon to be mirrored elsewhere. Millennium Village, to be built at Greenwich, will treat IT as a household service and an intrinsic part of the local community. Nick Thompson, director of the Integer (intelligent, green housing) research project, predicts that each home will be a "node" in a global web, but will also be part of a local area network.

This will make it possible not only for people to work from home and set up local business, it could also revolutionise the way care for children and the aged works. Home shopping and delivery could enable far longer independence and by connecting to local clinics and the emergency services ICT will usher in telemedicine and improve household safety.

Integral to the design of Millennium Village is a communal car pool. Maintained by a company like Hertz, this would enable a dramatic reduction in private car ownership. Additionally, councils or housing associations will be able to communicate with residents about maintenance and repairs, and billing for gas or electricity can be done via a keyboard. (Earlier this month Islington council launched 11 access points to enable residents without PCs access to its services via the Net.)

An idea common to several new developments is a "teleservices centre" - an IT forum that will provide technological back-up, social space and the kinds of hardware that people do not want at home. Design consultant Tony Rowe observes: "One of the problems is technology moves all the time. New technology is always expensive. Organisations that employ a lot of people can afford it."

Individuals, more often than not, can't. Clive Wilding, managing director of Gleesons homes division, says there will probably be communally managed areas at up-and-coming projects in Sheffield, Reading and Cowisdon, Surrey. Following the trend set in modern offices, the centres will provide flexible space and equipment that can be booked according to users' needs.

With communal space meeting demand for a formal office environment, the house can be left as a home. At MSN Street, computer users have slotted them into living rooms and bedrooms much as they do a telephone or television. But Wilding says: "We feel the nature of work has changed sufficiently to change houses".

All Gleesons' houses are smart-wired with an ISDN socket in each room, and each has dual planning consent for office and residential use. However, "the majority of people don't like to be isolated in a family house. The idea of a separate study isn't important".

At Building Homes magazine, editor David Birkbeck says: "The quiet corner will need to be the nicest part of the house and I suspect it will be full of light. A house of the future will definitely have a corner of that quality because that's where people will be chained. It's the same in every workspace: people gravitate towards the windows. If you want birds, trees, or to watch your kids, you need big windows".

Whether it's for work, play or the day-to-day business of simply having and living in a house, it looks certain we will be getting very much more familiar with computers in the near future. It could be time to find a sunny window, log on, and get to know the neighbours.