WebTV wants to control your home

If home networking is the nirvana of the new millennium, then WebTV Networks wants its set-top box to become the mantra that consumers use to reach a state of bliss.

WebTV, along with chip manufacturer Echelon and electric switch maker Leviton Manufacturing, this year plan to release a combined system that will let users network any device that plugs into an electrical outlet, sources close to the companies said.

The WebTV box will become the hub in a home network that uses existing electrical wiring and Leviton electrical outlets and switches that are enhanced with Echelon's processors. Using the WebTV keyboard, users will be able to control air conditioning, kitchen appliances, light switches, security systems, sprinkler systems and stereos, said Steve Perlman, WebTV's president and chief executive officer. "Power lines, and eventually phone lines, have throughputs of 10 megabits per second. Using the existing connections and a WebTV box is cheaper than most of the other home networking solutions out there," Perlman said.

Although Perlman declined to provide specifics, sources close to WebTV said the system is designed to send and receive electrical impulses from the WebTV box to addressable processors located in the electrical outlet or within the devices themselves. Each processor will have a unique serial number, so the WebTV box will know exactly which device is being accessed at any time, sources said.

Analysts said the WebTV network approach was a smart one, especially because only 27 percent of all WebTV users own a PC. "This kind of home networking, where you've got control of anything around the house using a keyboard, is best suited to the non-PC crowd. It takes the WebTV and fits it into the home in a larger way," said Richard Doherty, a director at the Envisioneering Group, a technology consultancy.

WebTV also will leverage its technology to give users more control of their homes using e-mail. "Subscribers will be able to e-mail the WebTV box and tell it to record their favourite shows if they are running late at work. They'll also be able to e-mail and tell the box to turn on their lights or turn off their sprinkler system," Perlman said.

WebTV isn't the only device that could take advantage of an Echelon/Leviton design, according to Doherty. "This is not exclusive to WebTV or Microsoft. The modules could also receive signals from a device like Palm Computing's PDA," he said.

One analyst, at least, remains unconvinced by the home networking hype. "I think consumers are interested in sharing data within the house or resources like a printer, but I really wonder if they would want to control everything in their house from one place," said Josh Bernoff, a principal analyst at Forrester Research. "Besides, WebTV isn't in every home in the country right now. The cable operators claim - and they may be right - that they have a better shot at home networking."