Douglas Crockford

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Connected Home 2004

The Connected Home Forum was a meeting of about 45 people, hosted by Osney Media Limited in London, September 16 and 17.

This conference had a strong European focus. I was one of the few Americans attending.

Connected Home

The Connected Home is the convergence of several trends:

The technical convergence is driven by digital technology. Nearly all of the systems in the home are now based on or controlled by digital microprocessors. However, the integration of all of these things is much more difficult, requiring the alignment of the multiple industries.

This is made more complicated by the fight to control the Center of the Universe. The Center of the Universe might be the TV set, or the DVR, or the STB, or the Remote Control, or the network gateway, or the Home Computer, or the refrigerator, or the wireless base station. It is too early to predict which, if any of these, becomes the center of the connected home.

DRM is a counter-force against integration. DRM intentionally makes it more difficult to connect systems and make them work together. There was almost no mention of DRM at this conference. I think this is because DRM is much less important in Europe because the Studios have little influence in Europe.

Appliances

It is possible for the microcontrollers in appliances to be networked together. This makes some new functions possible. For example, what is the benefit in having your computer talk to your refrigerator? Possibly, the refridgerator can warn that it is about to fail, and can raise a maintenance alarm. Or it could use RFID technology to warn that the milk has expired. There is little value in doing this.

Networking of the heating system is slightly more valuable. Using a cellphone, you can monitor the state of your house and set the thermostat, and turn the lights on and off. It is possible (but expensive) to do this today, and it does not require integration with the entertainment system or the computer system.

Remote monitoring has benefits for elderly people. Systems can monitor things like motion sensors and toilet flushes to produce reports of well-being.

Samsung is very strong in Smart Buildings. When they identify a market opportunity, they very quickly install Models. Their ability to respond quickly is allowing them to become a leader in this field.

Echelon makes a family of cheap, communicating controller chips that can be used in networked appliances.

Computers

Home working (or telecommuting) is becoming an important application. It can be subsidized by the savings realized by industry. However, there are real concerns about the reliability of home computers, and the costs of support and lost productivity. This may require that work computers be firewalled from personal computers. This need for firewalling is another counter-force. The security problems inherent in PCs is a real problem. There is fear that viruses could move from the computer to the TV or the heating system. It might be possible to start a fire remotely, perhaps accidentally.

The guy from Intel said that UPnP 1.0 is not secure. That is a problem because it is critical piece of the DLNA project.

Entertainment

The benefit promised for entertainment is that programs can be transported to all of the rooms of the house. The solution today is called "Sneakernet", which means that you physically carry the content from place to place. For example, if you want to hear a CD in your bedroom, you pick up the CD and carry it to the bedroom. This is simple and very cost-effective. It is difficult for a network to compete with this.

Sneakernet used to be used in business, when you would carry a floppy disk from computer to computer. Eventually local area networks took over, and floppy disks are no longer used. A similar change may happen in the home, but it may take a long time, particularly if the network attempts to restrict their freedoms. People want control, not just access.

Philips will have products that use powerline networking next year.

Not Next Year

One attendee said that he goes to these conferences every year, and every year they say that the breakthrough will come next year. He said that this year, he believes that it will come next year. I think he will have to wait much longer.

Sometimes we see technology offered as a solution without a problem. This is clearly the case with the Connected Home. The complexity is high, and the value to consumers is low. In the applications where there is value, such as home working and monitoring of the elderly, integration with entertainment systems can damage reliability. I think the integration of the connected home will happen eventually, but the industries have many hard problems to solve first. Consumers do not need this. They can wait until it is right.