Middle-class homeowners want the digital homes their wealthier neighbors have been willing to pay a fortune to obtain. Luckily, new technologies are putting the digital home within reach for far less money.

Home is where the heart is, but in the age of the Internet, home is also where the entertainment is. That was a major theme at the Consumer Electronics Show 2005 in Las Vegas, where Intel’s CEO Craig Barrett spotlighted the digital home. Barrett told the group that people want “on demand capability” with access to all kinds of content everywhere in the home. While entertainment is a big part of it, it’s not the whole story. People want to network other systems in the home as well.

The long-rumored future is at our door, and it offers opportunities to those home automation installers and electronics retailers who are willing to embark upon new ways to do business. According to a report by Bernstein Research, May 2004: “The result of the convergence between PCs and home entertainment devices, the digital home is broadly defined as the digitization and networking of all forms of consumer electronics devices and home appliances. Although the notion of the ‘digital home’ has held promise for over a decade, only recently have the key technology building blocks matured sufficiently to begin driving meaningful penetration of households. We expect that by 2008, 25 percent of homes in the United States will contain devices that can store and share media over a high-speed home network.”

While networking capabilities have long been easily available to anyone willing to spend enough money to install proprietary systems – a minimum of $10,000 – now these capabilities are more available to people who want to start by spending as little as one-fifth that much. Networking a home can enable a PC to turn on the coffee-maker or the lights in the family room from a convenient control point – or optimize the performance of your heating and air conditioning systems. The family can share Internet or broadband connections, and a network can distribute music and video throughout the house.

Owners at the top end of the market have turned to installers for decades for separate proprietary systems enabling them to control security, heating and electricity as well as entertainment. These are excellent systems whose quality and reliability make eminent sense at a certain income level, and they will doubtless continue to be the systems of choice for the wealthy.

However, many people would be happy spending less money to achieve the level of quality and efficiency available from emerging technologies. These middle-class homeowners also want to leverage the digital investment more broadly. Forget the stack of equipment that comes with expensive proprietary systems. The middle-class appreciates the versatility of a kitchen PC with Internet connectivity, family scheduling software and TV tuner that also acts as the central point to control HVAC, security, lights and other systems throughout the home. Installers can help such homeowners benefit from advances in Windows and Linux software making it much easier to network the home.

While installers will find the middle-class market less lucrative individually than the top-tier homeowner segment, the greater number of middle class homes makes them well worth the time.

The middle-class homeowner needs to know the right questions to ask in order to find an installer who will work at the level the homeowner desires. Otherwise, the homeowner will be at the mercy of installers still too focused on old ways of doing business who fail to fully recognize how personal computers combined with more traditional electronics installations can help create home networks rivaling the best in proprietary systems. One homeowner’s experience illustrates the pitfalls to avoid. Her search for a digital home led her to a neighborhood outlet of a national electronics chain where salesmen assured her they could start (?!) at around $9,000 and pipe sound through four rooms, including her family room, master bedroom, basement and kitchen. When the salesmen saw the would-be customer’s dazed look, they suggested financing was available. These salesmen also seemed somewhat put off by the customer’s desire to network the sound system through her computers.

It’s not unusual for installers and system designers to avoid using computers or to fail to recognize the cost-saving benefits for setting up a LAN or local area network. Each LAN is unique because homeowners invariably want different capabilities from their home networks. The ultimate cost depends on how extensive a network the homeowner wants.

But it is important for a homeowner to know that a network can be installed incrementally and expanded over time. In this way, the homeowner spends less money while figuring out the optimal path to his or her personal digital home. The expansion of WiFi and the growing capabilities of wireless local area networks (WLANs) to carry more data, video and voice have made it possible to create digital homes without tearing down walls to lay cables.

These advances have already expanded the ranks of the DIY (do-it-yourself) homeowners willing to venture into networking on their own. Homeseer Technologies (www.homeseer.com) has traditionally served hobbyists willing to spend the time installing their own systems. The HomeSeerSE Z-Wave Starter Kit sells for $200 and enables Web control of Z-Wave devices. The Z-Wave device, which works wirelessly, replaces older X-10 devices for controlling lights, appliances and more. Homeseer’s Mark Colegrove says it takes only 15 to 20 minutes to install the starter kit and a single component such a lamp. Homeowners will need to add a Z-Wave device for each component they wish to add to their network.

However, as simple as Homeseer has already made it for the DIY (do-it-yourself) crowd, the company recognizes that many homeowners would prefer to work with a professional home automation installer or integrator: “While we still find that many buyers want to be able to use us to start on their own and to learn as they go, growing numbers want the extra care a dealer can provide. That’s why we are establishing a dealer network for customers who want to step up to another level of service.”

Similarly, Xabler (www.xabler.com) offers Microsoft-compatible home and business hardware and software equipment more likely to be attractive to a large segment of the middle class. The company’s products enable control of all brands of automated systems through a single interface such as a personal computer.

A personal computer can dramatically lower the cost of a home automation system. Although some electronics retailers and installers unfortunately still feel less than comfortable with computers, homeowners will want a personal computer to be included with their systems. A personal computer is capable of replacing many of the individual components of the high-end, proprietary systems—while offering the additional flexibility of being an Internet and information portal, supplementary TV, and central control center.

While any personal computer might arguably be serviceable, an all-in-one computer is desirable for its convenient packaging and size. All-in-one computers by definition have no tower and take up less space. Among the thinnest of the all-in-ones are the Pelham Sloane models PS1500 and PS1500M, which integrate the computer behind a flat-panel screen. Only the Apple iMac G5 is slightly slimmer. However, the Pelham Sloane models have the advantage of a touch screen option that make the unit extremely practical as central control center for a home automation system. Pelham Sloane models can also be configured with a wireless mouse and keyboard that homeowners may choose to put away in a drawer until needed—thus leaving the countertop free of electronic clutter. Pelham Sloane models are also unique among all-in-ones for their VESA-mount capability that makes it possible to attach the computer against a wall or to an arm (to mount under a cabinet, for example, as are many kitchen TVs).

One of the first desktop computers to utilize the Intel® Pentium® M processor, the PS1500M can be configured with built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, the leading standard for wireless networking. Equipped with a TV tuner, the computer doubles as a TV.

It’s also suited to home automation because the processor generates very little heat and consequently needs almost no cooling and ventilation. While many personal computers have noisy fans that could be distracting, especially if the computer is being used as a media entertainment hub, the PS1500M is virtually soundless.

With this and other advances in hardware and software, the road to the digital home has never been easier to travel. The middle-class owners willing to ask the right questions of installers and systems designers in 2005 will find that they can make their homes into castles of entertainment and electronic comfort, and still have plenty of money left over for popcorn.