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Sun, MS duke it out over digital home

Don't expect peace under one roof. Both companies have their own - and very different - ideas about how your dream house of the future should be built

You might say that Bill Gates and Scott McNealy have made their respective debuts as home architects. And while each of them has a similar idea of what your dream house of the future should look like, they have widely disparate blueprints about how the studs and joists should be nailed together.

They both used the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas as the forum on which to stage their basic plans for the "connected home", as Gates' Microsoft calls it, or the "dot-com home", as dubbed by McNealy's Sun Microsystems.

The differences run deeper than names, however. Sun doesn't see its role going much past the electrical contracting stage. In showing off the guts of its digital home -- a one-room prototype built into a convention hall meeting room -- Sun focused on its Jini consumer networking technology, while its partners showed off how Sun's software tied everything together.

Microsoft, by contrast, wants to also be contractor and interior designer. Its home, a multi-roomed exhibit occupying hundreds of square feet in the main convention hall, used Microsoft technology as the mainstay for every device and digital capability in every room.

But can they deliver? For right now, neither company has the edge in winning your bid -- not until they both prove just one thing. And they both know it. "Ultimately, it is about delivering services," said Steve Guggenheimer, director of the consumer and commerce group at Microsoft. "To make the consumer happy, you have to be able to deliver the right feature. If it doesn't work for them, they'll just turn you off."

Remarkably, the homes are strikingly similar. Each uses some variant of Internet technology to let every appliance talk with every other appliance. Computer technology inhabited even the light switch plates, and cell phones became the remote control for the house. Personal computers were gauche -- replaced by flat tablets or mini-workstations from which users could browse the Web and control home functions.

Most of all, both are basically about automating tasks. A knock at the door? Use a Web Pad to connect to the front door security camera and see who's there -- even unlock the door. Out of milk? Scan the empty carton with a barcode scanner and milk is added to your shopping list. Another press of a button can send the list to an online grocery delivery service, such as Peapod or Webvan.

Sun's modest "dot-com home" resembled a technology demonstration. Using Jini -- Sun's self-organising networking for appliances -- a cell phone could be used to turn off the lights at home. A Web Pad from National Semiconductor running Linux could print an email. All the devices used a home network gateway to communicate.

It involves a substantial amount of equipment. Yet, Sun believes that you won't have to pay for that much of it. "The model will really be subsidised by people who want to connect with consumers in their home," said Sun's Vasquez. "If you buy DSL service, then someone like GTE could come in, install the service, and ask, 'Would you like a free Web Pad as well?'"

And installation will be a snap because consumer-friendly stores like Sears will be making the house call. "As a consumer, you don't have to install anything," said Vasquez. "The full dot-com home will go to trial this summer. The appliances should start hitting the market in 2001."

Microsoft's giant "connected home" had all the whiz-bang features, but it was less evident where its own Universal Plug and Play technology had a role.

As Sun had, Microsoft explained that the refrigerator and stove could talk to manufacturers over the network to tell them when there was a problem.

Aside from that nebulous explanation, Microsoft did as little as Sun to show how such a system might work. It was more obvious how the various flavours of Windows fit into Microsoft's picture.

A WebTV device enhanced the TV in the living room. A teenager played the latest music using Windows Media files on a Windows 2000 computer. Web Companions running Windows CE connected to the Internet and home functions from around the house. And a variety to Windows software -- from Money 2000 to Office 2000 -- debuted in the Home office.

Who may come out on top is anyone's guess, but the dispute over whose home is better has quickly turned into a fight as bare-knuckled as a union dispute. "In a Microsoft environment, it is a Microsoft operating system, using a Microsoft network, and sending Microsoft content," said Vance Vasquez, group business manager for consumer and embedded applications at Sun. "They are trying to own the whole value chain."

Yet, Microsoft pointed to its list of tens of partners as proof that it was playing well.

In addition, the software giant aimed at Sun's difficulties with its demos on stage the day before at McNealy's keynote. "The devil is in the implementation," said Guggenheimer. "We have been selling software to customers for many, many years. And services are just another form of software."

For full coverage, see the CES News Special.

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