It's time to dim the lights.exe Smart homes: In the not-too-distant future, you'll be able to talk to your house by phone.


Turn your lights off and on by remote control. Computerize your dimmer switches. Hook the computers into a local-area network to share an Internet connection. Adjust your furnace thermostat over the phone.

Plug your TV into the satellite/cable/Internet feed in any room of the house. Have the burglar alarm turn on the lights, call you at work and notify the police. Monitor the nursery on your Web page.

Talk to your house? Maybe.

If IBM and other computer builders have their way, home automation is going to be as ubiquitous as home computers, which are now in some 40 percent of U.S. homes.

By repackaging technologies long used by eccentric hackers and home office pioneers, IBM, under its new Home Director Professional line, is trying to set standards and drive down prices for home automation in new construction.

The company is extending to the home a pattern that's been common in business computing. There's a certification program for installers - which networking companies such as Novell have offered for business network professionals. And they're selling, and certifying, hardware and software that are supposed to work together flawlessly.

The idea, according to IBM's Mary Walker, is to do for home automation what the company did for the original IBM PC - create a standard that many companies, not just IBM, can thrive under.

Most experts applaud IBM and think home automation may be the Next Big Thing.

"In new homes, automation is becoming what security systems used to be, a way to differentiate a quality high-end house," says Joseph P. Freedman, a leading consultant on home automation.

About 35 percent of homes built this year will be wired for local-area networks that connect home computers. Freedman estimates that Americans are going to spend about $5 billion this year on networks and other home-automation products.

The business of supplying do-it-yourselfers, meanwhile, is booming too. On Internet sites like, you'll find a huge selection of products ranging from dog feeders to automated plant-watering systems to whole-house controls operated from graphical PC displays.

Even if you don't want a smart house now, it might pay to put in the wiring for it whenever you redecorate or add space.

The idea is to create the capability for a broad range of future services, even if they're not activated right away. According to IBM's Walker, every room in the house will have at least one outlet for video, phones, a computer network and an infrared remote control.

The protocols and hardware that IBM is touting give a pretty good idea of what else is in store, and what you can do yourself with parts you buy elsewhere.

It all starts with a dedicated PC that does nothing but manage the electronic systems in your home. The PC can, for example, turn lights and appliances on and off by so-called X-10 controllers.

The PC is also wired into a local-area network, so it can act as a file server for a high-speed Internet connection. Coaxial cable for your satellite feed and for internal video monitors feed into a central wiring closet, so that, for example, you can display and manipulate the controller computer from your TV - or for that matter, display TV on a personal computer. A home-security system is also linked in.

"Say you want to keep track of a latchkey child," Walker said. "Everyone in the family has a personal code that they enter to turn off the security system when they come into the house. With the computer linkup, you can get e-mail or have your pager rung when your child gets home from school."

Next to the computer, the X-10 protocol and hardware are the key to the operation. Although X-10 was once a curiosity, a half-dozen companies now build compatible products.

The good stuff, like specialized controllers for scene lighting, is rarely available at regular retail outlets. Suppose you have a giant media room, with banks of track lighting, lamps and so on. More elaborate controllers let you create and save "scenes" such as a dim light for TV viewing or a bright one for reading, something in-between for parties.

To find this kind of professional-grade equipment, you have to go to an electrical supply house or to a mail-order vendor on the Internet. The really serious systems, per the IBM plan, interface with computers, which in turn display options on your TV screen. Various minicomputers, little programmable wall-mounted devices that are operated by touch-screens, also exist. Every room will have one or two outlets that contain Category 5, 10-Base T wiring. This is what links computers, and additional runs of it are used for telephones.

"We talk to a lot of builders, and they're starting to put this into homes," Walker said. "They don't necessarily know what it is or why people need it, but they do know that lots of people want it. That's a sure sign that home automation, just like hot tubs, has gone mass market."

Pub Date: 5/25/98

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