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Monday, May 31, 2004  

Technology: The Digital Home

Does a refrigerator really need an Internet connection? That is the kind of question I'm asking myself more and more often as I continue to read articles about The Digital Home. The high tech geek part of my personality latched on to the topic about four years ago and hasn't let go. Much of what is being said about TDH has changed during that time because early ideas about poducts turned out to be vaporware, or, new technology outpaced them. A look through aging editions of MacWorld, Business 2.0 and Wired is telling since many of the innovations suggested relied on wired Ethernet or old phone network connections. Now, the emphasis is on going wireless.

Before we go on, let me clarify what I mean by The Digital Home. ZDNet's Anchordesk has a current piece that familiarizes readers with what the concept is and where it is going.

SEOUL, South Korea -- At the Samsung Tower Palace, even the refrigerators are logged onto the Net.

The luxury apartment complex here is a showcase for Samsung Electronics' burgeoning digital home business -- an idea that once was dismissed as a pie-in-the-sky but now is starting to gain traction. Besides refrigerators, Samsung Tower's $1 million-plus apartments are outfitted with Internet-enabled ovens, security cameras and wall-mounted flat-panel displays.

Samsung has sold more than 6,000 networked homes in South Korea, and now it's eager to export its success. The company has tests under way in Canada, Australia and Europe, and it recently struck deals with two U.S.-based home builders to conduct digital home trials in the United States. According to Samsung, wiring homes in the United States with the necessary networking gear will cost from $2,000 to $10,000--making adoption relatively affordable.

The basic concept of TDH is that consumers will benefit from having just about every electrical appliance in their abodes connected to the Internet. The success of high speed Internet access -- digital subscriber lines and cable -- is making the idea seem more and more achievable. Improved 802.11 (WiFi) connectability will make that even more so. A pragmatic use of TDH is a product like a media adapter. Linksys explains why one might want to use such a product.

The Wireless-B Media Adapter sits by your home stereo and television and connects to them using standard consumer electronics cables. Then it connects to your home network by Wireless-B (802.11b) wireless networking, or if you prefer, it can be connected via standard 10/100 Ethernet cabling. Using the included remote control and the user-friendly menus on your TV, you can browse through the digital pictures on your computer by folder, filename, or thumbnail.

. . .You can also use the remote to browse your MP3 or WMA formatted music collection by title, artist, genre, folder, or playlist.

However, it seems to me that designers are putting the cart ahead of the donkey much of the time. Consider this description of an Internet ice box.

LG Electronics' Digital Multimedia Side-By-Side Fridge Freezer with LCD Display was one of the first available products; its features include a touch screen in a 15.1-inch thin-film-transistor liquid-crystal display (TFT-LCD ) and its own LAN (local area network) port. This refrigerator can keep track of what foods are stored in it and how long they've been there. There's a built-in video camera, so you can leave video memos for other household members, and a built-in digital camera, so you can take a photograph and save it to an album, post it to a Web site, or send it out to an e-mail recipient. You can also watch television, play MP3 files, or listen to the radio.

Some of the uses of TDH products, such as the media adapter and its predecessor, the wireless music adapter, make sense. A New York Times story which described how having computers in rooms other than the home office or livingroom, including the kitchen, increases the likelihood of their actually being used instead of gathering dust was convincing. I can also relate to having some appliances connectable to the Internet so they can be accessed for troubleshooting. However, The Digital Home loses me at the point when the frig and the microwave are supposed to call home. Most appliances don't fail often enough for such access to be necessary. It strikes me as technology in search of a need. I get the same feeling thinking about TDH that I do browsing the Sharper Image catalog or hanging out in the store. Yes, some of these inventions are gee whiz clever, I think, but they are also easily done without because they serve no even semi-pressing need. It seems to me that the tenants of Samsung Tower Palace could surely find more practical ways to spend their money -- unless pointless consumption is the point.

Reasonably related

•There is a a magazine dedicated to The Digital Home.

Intel offers a series of articles and white papers on The Digital Home technology.

•A consortium called Digital Home Working Group is attempting to establish standards for products and champion interoperability.

6:30 PM