Jury Still Out on High-Tech Homes

Thursday, September 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The barbecue was linked to the TV in Microsoft's home of the future, but the real spectacle was a few booths away, where men were crowding around for a close look at the latest in ladders.

This wasn't just a case of manliness over nerdiness. The throngs of men attending the CEDIA 2000 trade show the past few days were professional installers of home entertainment and electronics systems, the type of work where a sturdy ladder comes in handy.

``Sometimes it's the second story straight up, and you've got to get to that,'' said James Wilson, one of several installers from Southwest Home Systems in Keller, Texas, who were studying Wing Inc.'s Little Giant, an adjustable ladder ``system'' with 34 potential configurations.

The conversation was also spirited about the cool tools on display at CEDIA, the second biggest show of the year for the consumer electronics industry, run by the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association.

But naturally, with Microsoft hanging out its shingle at CEDIA for the first time, plenty of attendees made sure to pay a visit, curious what the powerful software maker might have in mind for their industry.

Curiosity soon gave way to skepticism, however. Computers will undoubtedly play a major role in the home theater projects that dominate this business, but the mess of wiring below the online barbecue suggested a work in progress.

``It took a lot to get there,'' said David Massarelli, an installer for Select Audio Video in Vero Beach, Fla., shaking his head in amusement.

The stakes are high for Microsoft and other big-time technology players as they jockey for the attention of contractors like Massarelli. These people are on the front lines with consumers, doling out advice on the best ways to interconnect and automate a home.

For now, few of them care to recommend a major investment in any particular system amid all the unfinished debates about standards, compatability and exactly what types of interaction between appliances will ultimately prove popular.

``Right now (home networking) is nothing more than 'Oh Wow!' It's too abstract. You can't really picture how to use it,'' said Tony Baker, an installer with Now! Audio Video in North Carolina. ``I want to see if something will stick before I use it.''

Both Baker and Massarelli also fretted about potential system crashes with the Windows-based operating software Microsoft was using to run its CEDIA home network.

``I don't trust Windows to run my word processing. I don't want Windows running my home,'' said Massarelli.

Microsoft itself was downplaying the significance of Windows in favor of the Universal Plug & Play, a format Microsoft and others are championing as a standard for enabling different devices to communicate when connected.

``There is no strong dependency on Windows. That may sound odd, but we feel the best thing is to build an open platform based on Internet Protocol,'' said Microsoft exhibitor Alex Popoff, referring to the data language to communicate on the Web and other computer networks.

But despite the alleged risks, the prominence of Windows as the operating platform for personal computers may provide a level of comfort for the adoption of home network technology, said Randy Richardson, one of Baker's co-workers at Now! Audio Video.

``People are familiar with Windows, so it's got that going for it,'' Richardson said.