What distinguishes today’s digital homes from “smart homes” of the past is the modular nature of the technology. Because so many products are designed with Internet standards in mind, consumers can start out with just a few devices and build up slowly. It helps that PCs such as Dell Computer Corp.’s XPS gaming machine and Hewlett-Packard Co.’s Media Center PC are becoming entertainment-oriented, while consumer electronics are becoming more PC-like — with hard drives, screen-based menus, and built-in Net access. Piece by piece, the technology also is getting more user-friendly. That goes a long way toward explaining the explosive popularity of Wi-Fi networks, now in 11 millionU.S.households.
Electronics companies understand that their wares must work together and be simple to use. That mission is facing warring factions to lay down their weapons. In June, some top-tier companies including Sony, Samsung, Philips, Nokia, and HP formed the Digital Home Working Group, which will implement guidelines allowing networked devices to work together and even interconnect automatically on the Net. “The digital home has a lot of impetus behind it and, for the first time, a lot of people pulling in the same direction,” says Gartner Inc. consumer-electronics analyst Van L. Baker inSan Jose,Calif.