Some outstanding presentations were made at Parks Associates' Forum2000, held late last year in San Francisco by the Dallas-based home technology research firm. But the real action at the event, themed "Empowering the Internet@Home," seemed to occur on the small trade show floor, which showcased the latest in a new breed of Internet appliances--Web pads, personal digital assistants, game consoles, e-mail terminals, screen phones, Internet radios, and other temptations for early adopters. Sales of Internet appliances will explode in coming years, according to the show presenters. By changing the way people live, these toys create new design challenges for builders.

Though few builders made presentations at the conference, they were on the mind of most presenters. Builders, it's clear, need to provide structured wiring in homes in order for Internet appliances to realize their potential. With a backbone of Category-5 wiring and RG-6 cable in place, fully networked in a home run system, hardware manufacturers will be able to provide links to a wide range of mobile computers within the house. The payoff? Home life in the future, according to marketers, will be much more convenient, much more fun.

In new homes, the Internet needs to become a utility like gas, electricity, and phone service, says Michael Moore, a group vice president at Cisco Systems. Once connectivity becomes ubiquitous, he says, Internet devices and services for distributed entertainment, communications, education, and personal convenience will become commonplace. But, again, making that possible is up to builders.

The current object of affection is the Web pad. This hand-held device, about the size and shape of an Etch-A-Sketch, allows homeowners to control their home systems from any room in the house. Honeywell and 3Com, among others, recently introduced models that have already been showing up in custom homes. Home automation software providers are coming out with packages that link to these devices.

"What people want are products that simplify their lives, not complicate it," says Mike Polacek, a vice president at National Semiconductor Corp., in Santa Clara, Calif. And the Web pad fits the bill. These new Internet appliances "are no longer confined to the back rooms of technology offices. They are coming at you. They are in stores."

Fourteen consumer and high-technology companies joined forces at Forum2000 to debut the Internet Home Alliance, which hopes to create even more buzz around this product category. Its founders--including Cisco, 3Com, Best Buy, Comp-USA, Honeywell, Panasonic, and others--want to make it easier for homeowners to enjoy an Internet lifestyle. Their goal is to promote interoperability between Internet appliances.

[Initial Publication Date, January 2001]