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Home automation tools have long suffered from a bad rap. However, solutions from IBM and others have come a long way in the areas of ease-of-use, system integration and installation.

"In the past, integration and networking of systems would take a whole lot of custom design and installation work," Schmidt says. "IBM has standardized the work [for its system integrators] so it can be installed in a mass market kind of approach. We've designed the system with the consumer in mind."

Indeed, IBM's Home Director system has tools that really put home owners back in charge. Instead of being a slave to your home, Home Director gives you complete control over its main systems--lighting, air conditioning, garage door control, heating and security--all from one central location. More than just control, it turns your dwelling into a "smart" home with intelligent operations.

For instance, say you're experiencing a blustery, cold streak. Just program IBM's Home Director to turn the heat up to 75 degrees about 15 minutes before you arrive home so everything's toasty warm when you get there. In the near future, the system will have the capacity to automatically check weather info from the Internet and not turn on the sprinklers if it's going to rain. Nifty security features will even fire off an e-mail letting you know your child has arrived home safely from school.

All this is made possible with two main components: IBM's Home Network Controller and Web Point systems. Home Network Controller is a dedicated computing appliance that monitors and controls common home systems such as lighting, air conditioning and security and takes data currently available from home subsystems and makes it meaningful. Simple to use, you can even change routine settings for your security interface, heating, ventilation and air conditioning via your TV. IBM Web Point allows family members to simultaneously access the Internet through a single connection. Presently, the system is compatible with 56K modems; Schmidt says wireless Internet access and phone-line based Internet distribution that supports cable and DSL modems will be available later this year.

Home Director systems, which are priced between $8,000 to $15,000, are currently being integrated by a number of major home builders into new homes nationwide. IBM Web Point is available to the consumer market. For more information, visit the IBM Home Director Web site at www.ibm.com/homedirector.

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