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Appliances get smart

November 2, 1998
Web posted at: 11:20 AM EDT

by Brooks Talley


(IDG) -- It's pretty obvious that we're heading toward the integration of computers with pretty much everything else that runs off a silicon chip. Whether it's a good idea or not, the day will soon arrive when you will be unable to find a decent vacuum cleaner that isn't running Java, Windows CE, Lucent's Inferno, or some other embedded operating system undoubtedly networked in some way with the rest of your household devices.

For about 100 years, household-appliance makers have gone through tedious product development, stabilized on a good model, then left the products alone. Unfortunately for those appliances, the attitude of appliance users has shifted. Home dwellers now accustomed to "smart" working environments want to come home to equally smart households. So the technology industry is making that happen.

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There's no question that smart appliances are on their way, the only question is how far it will go. Although some glumly predict developments as ridiculous as IP-enabled disposable razors, many believe it will stop before that. Phil Morettini, vice president of sales at Patriot Scientific, a San Diego-based Java microprocessor developer, opines, "Where I draw the line is with cost; I don't see embedded Web servers in the toaster, but I do see them in the refrigerator. The division [of complexity] is where you'd call a service guy if it [breaks] vs. just throwing it out."


Because major appliance manufacturers don't have a lot of expertise in embedded system development, look for partnerships between established brands in both fields. Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Lucent Technologies, and other players all are jockeying to be the platform of choice for appliance computing. Microsoft's scaled-down OS, Windows CE, is already appearing in cable boxes, and Microsoft is positioning it to create other appliances with attitude -- let's call them active appliances.

Sun, of course, is touting Java's cross-platform nature in the active appliance arena. In the ideal world, Java would enable different smart appliances to connect to different hardware, and things would work together. If your Whirlpool washer, for instance, ran on a StrongARM platform and you replaced it with an i960-based Maytag, you'd be able to simply move over your washing-machine program. You'll have to move the program, of course, because new appliances probably will come bundled with trial versions of their appliance applications. A new dishwasher with Cascade Lite might pop up nag screens urging you to buy the full version -- instantly, via the Web, for a small fee -- between each washing cycle.

Sun's Jini OS project aims to simplify the integration of Java-enabled devices by allowing the devices to automatically send small applets to each other. So your oven might send an applet to the dishwasher that would inform it about the quantity of food cooked at what temperature, to better enable the dishwasher to clean the pans. But Java and Windows CE aren't mutually exclusive.

"I think you'll see embedded Java running on top of Windows CE," Morettini says. "The kernel will be more appropriate for managing the device, and Java will run the applications on top of it."


Lucent's Inferno OS has received less press, but arguably it's a more versatile and useful OS for appliances. Like Java, Inferno runs in a virtual-machine environment, so object code is portable. But unlike Java, Inferno is lean and fast, so there's more hope that an oven's temperature display would be accurate and not time-delayed. Inferno offers an advantage because as far as a program running on Inferno is concerned, everything it has access to is a local file. This gives it a great deal of versatility, as well as simplifies the work for application developers.

"There will be two trends in the marketplace in the next five years: The first is equipping the individual at home and at work," notes Ron De Lange, vice president of Inferno network software at Lucent, in Basking Ridge, N.J. "The second is equipping the environment. Interoperability of the environment will lead to some pretty wild stuff that we haven't even thought of yet."

Once the appliances, entertainment systems, and computers in a house can communicate, we can expect to see all sorts of value-added services, especially when tied to the Internet. When will all these smart devices appear? Some will take form as soon as next year, others may be another 20 years down the road. Unless nobody wants to use them, of course. I'm holding onto my trusty vacuum as long as I can.

Test Manager Brooks Talley ( has specialized in networking technologies, IP and the Internet, communications, and application development during his 11 years in IT.

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