Commentary: The Digital Home -- What Needs to Happen Now

In 10 years of writing about personal technology, I have heard the digital home heralded so often that it has seemed as mythical as the unicorn. Still, I'm convinced that it is on the verge of becoming reality.

From Microsoft Corp.'s home of the future in Redmond, Wash., to Philips Research's HomeLab in the Netherlands, researchers have built prototype automated homes that apply computer technology to the needs of daily living. They're cooking up security systems using facial recognition and appliances that brew your morning coffee when they sense you're in the shower. In the 1990s, projects such as these would have involved absurdly expensive technology and an army of engineers. Now, prototypes can be cobbled together in weeks from off-the-shelf components.

There's still a vast amount of work to be done, but much of it has moved from labs to committee rooms. Engineers and lawyers now must grapple with the technical business of setting standards and mediating between consumers' desire for cheap entertainment and content owners' demand for royalties. The bulk of the challenge to industry, however, can be summed up in three words: reliability, simplicity, privacy.

Nearly everyone agrees that entertainment is the gateway to the digital home. Consumers may be reluctant to trust heating, cooling, or home security to crash-prone PCs, but there is little risk in storing music, photos, and videos in a central computer, zipping them around the house, and downloading them into handheld players. Making all of this work is challenging. But years of hooking up balky DVD players and programming VCRs have led consumers to not expect too much of early systems.

In any event, consumer electronics are just one dimension of the digital home. PCs are the other, and great strides have been made in making them simpler. Largely because of the computer industry's embrace of standards, you can sit at a PC just about anywhere and get down to work. Indeed, compatibility testing means that it is often easier to set up a home wireless network than it is to get three or four video devices to work together with any of eight possible types of cables. Computer folks are pushing the consumer-electronics industry toward standards for digital entertainment, but a dozen task forces haven't weaned the consumer-electronics gang from proprietary systems.

The primary task for the PC camp is to boost its commitment to reliability and privacy. Consumers will not put up with mysterious blue screens on their TVs or with entertainment systems that must be rebooted. And these home-entertainment networks must be made secure against hacking and theft of personal information.

Finally, the digital home needs easy access to entertainment content. The music industry has grudgingly embraced selling downloads, but it has surrounded them with a mix of proprietary software and complex limits on use that guarantee a poor consumer experience. With films, it's even worse: Studios have blocked any legal online distribution of high-quality video.

The digital home is a huge opportunity for both consumers and vendors. Digital entertainment could be the path to much broader use of digital technology in the home -- but only if we get it right. Most of the technology is in place. Now is the time to speed up work on standards that have been languishing in dozens of industry task forces and working groups and get the products out there. Let the fun begin.

By Steve Wildstrom

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