Switching on home networks

Doing a spring clean? Why not hook up all your appliances to a smart home network

Home automation -- the sci-fi standby in which people control appliances, lighting and other functions around the house -- could become a mass market reality, with a boost from the PC networking industry.

Industry analysts are predicting that ubiquitous Internet access, increasing interest in home PC networking technologies and simplification of home automation tools will drive demand for what are termed "smart home networks". The ability to link with home PC local-area networks (LANs) means that homes can be controlled from a Web browser, mobile Web phone or telephone.

"Recent developments are making the smart home more affordable and accessible... while offering an increasing number of desirable capabilities," wrote analyst Katherine Bowen of Cahners In-Stat Group in an report issued this week. "The market is on the verge of rapid growth, with traditional home automation system vendors nearly doubling the number of new installations during the past year."

Cahners estimates that sales of controllers and nodes for what it terms "smart home networks" will rise from $180m (about £120m) last year to $1.7bn (£1.2bn) in 2005.

Home automation is nothing new, and for the last 30 years has mainly interested tech-savvy Americans. But the dawn of the Internet age has opened up new possibilities for the market as consumers get more interested in wiring their home PCs together and linking their appliances to the Web.

PC networking is not as popular in the UK as in America, where households are more likely to have more than one computer. But networking standards such as wireless LAN (802.11b) and Bluetooth are receiving a lot of interest here, which could stimulate the home automation market.

The best-established technology is X-10, which lets different devices connect inexpensively to one another over AC power lines, but this is expected to give way to more fully-functioned systems. These include LonWorks, which is gaining a footing in the home, and Universal Plug and Play, a Microsoft-backed solution running on Internet standards such as TCP, IP, http and XML. Both are peer-to-peer networks, and Universal Plug and Play is supported in Windows ME.

For smaller devices, Sun Microsystems is developing a solution called Jini based on its Java platform, which distributes services over a network.

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