Software rivals fight to run our homes

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TWO giant American software companies are gearing up for a trillion- dollar fight to control the home of the future and its links with the outside world.

Novell, which has revenues of $8bn (pounds 5bn) and is best known for providing networking software that links together personal computers in offices, is investing millions of dollars to push a system which will let PCs talk to videos, TVs, and even appliances such as washing machines and fridges.

Ranged against it is Microsoft, where the global ambitions of chief executive Bill Gates include providing the operating system and the software to connect everything in the home.

The companies' targets are "embedded systems" - the computer industry term for microprocessors that are built in to other products and run a single piece of software. Examples include video recorders, where software controls the date, time and recording functions, and microwaves and washing machines, where computer chips have replaced mechanical systems to control the length and variety of programs.

In the past five years, microprocessors have appeared in a growing number of items as their price has fallen. However, embedded systems are not usually designed to link to each other - so, for example, a PC cannot be hooked up to a video to program it.

Novell plans to link those systems together by using both the telephone network and electricity power lines to transmit data. It has already developed a common set of software standards to let embedded systems connect to each other.

"Our aim is to link one billion users together by the year 2000," says Darl McBride, Novell's vice-president in charge of the project, called NEST (Novell Embedded Systems Technology). "At the moment we have 100 million users, but they are almost all in the office. We see NEST as the beginning of a new market."

It has signed joint development contracts with companies including Xerox, Canon, Fujitsu, the chip-maker Intel and the office products firm Ricoh. A recent survey in the US identified networking as potentially a trillion- dollar market by 2000, if software companies can take advantage of the power of modern home appliances.

Two years ago Microsoft announced a software strategy called "At Home", to develop software which would link systems around the house together. But industry observers say that the project has produced no products apart from a stripped-down operating system called "Bob", which has still not been released. Microsoft is reckoned to have been distracted by the immense task of producing and testing the new version of its Windows operating system.

"There are billions of processors out there, and we are well placed to link them together," says Mr McBride. "Our code requires just 5,000 bytes of memory, whereas Microsoft is used to building operating systems that use megabytes. Our philosophy is that you can never have a system that's too fast, too small or too cheap to be part of a network."