According to no less an authority than Bill Gates we are on the cusp of a revolution in the way we all live our lives. The digital home is coming, whether you like it or not, and if you thought your life was already swamped with power-hungry gadgets just wait until you've got a server farm humming away in the basement.
Speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month, Gates argued that broadband, wireless connectivity and the Web 2.0 revolution are finally combining to deliver the interconnected digital home that technology gurus have been predicting for so long.
Digital content is now so ubiquitous, he argued, that we will soon need a server in every home to manage and store it all as it flies wirelessly between our multitude of different media devices.
As luck would have it, Microsoft also confirmed it was working with HP to deliver a server specifically for the home later this year.
Meanwhile, Cisco's CEO John Chambers claimed that the internet's imminent defeat of TV as the primary source of home entertainment will mean that by 2010 just 20 homes will produce as much network traffic as the entire internet in 1995.
The instinctive reaction from green campaigners will be to decry these developments as an environmental disaster in the making.
They have a point. The average UK household already has 10 to 14 digital devices with the average US household boasting up to 25 energy sapping digital toys and while hardware manufacturers are making steady improvements in energy efficiency these are likely to be wiped out by the surge in demand for all the new kit the digital home requires. Throw a server for every household into the mix and domestic energy consumption will go through the roof at a time when scientists are demanding it is cut down.
And yet the debate about the environmental threat posed by the digital home is not quite as clear cut as it first appears.
At an event last week organised by IT trade association CompTIA to mark the launch of a new qualification for technicians deploying and managing digital home kit, experts argued that digital home technologies could in fact limit the environmental impact of many homes' by delivering intelligent, automated household management capabilities.
Darryl Mattocks, managing director of home control technology provider Domia, pointed to the company's Bye Bye Standby solution, which automatically turns off electronic devices which are not in use, as a prime example of how the digital home's ability to provide people with greater control over devices could lead to enhanced energy efficiency. The company claimed that widespread adoption of its system could save up enough energy a year for the UK to decommission one major power station.
Similarly, Anthony Williams of home technology installation specialists The TechGuys argued that new sensor technologies will help ensure lights and other devices are switched off when not in use. "It is now possible to put water sensors in the soil in your garden, connect them to the central system and tell the sprinklers not to turn on if the soil is already wet," he explained.
Widespread adoption of digital home technologies is also likely to encourage still greater levels of home working, with those firms that have struggled to set up sufficiently secure home offices for staff likely to find deployment far easier when every home has a high speed broadband connection and a server offering back up capabilities.
However, these examples of improved energy efficiency pale into insignificance compared to the potential for environmental improvements that could be delivered through digital home networks that incorporate resource monitoring capabilities.
The government has long muted the possibility of systems capable of measuring in real time your household's water and energy consumption, and digital home management systems that already determine when lights and sprinklers come on would provide a natural site for such systems. In theory, this approach would give people the ability to see exactly how much energy they are using and as such encourage them to be far less wasteful. It would take the old corporate principle of "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it" right into the home and make people far more aware of the resource they consume.
Mattocks said that one of his colleagues has already pioneered this approach in his own home, setting up a system that monitors whenever his toilet is flushed and updates the amount of water that has been used on a website. It is a simple example, but Mattocks argued that it shows how simple it is to implement such monitoring systems once the rest of the digital devices in the home are networked together.
It remains unclear whether digital home networks will eventually include such monitoring devices, whether they would indeed encourage more responsible behaviour, and whether the various improvements in energy efficiency would offset the increased energy consumption of a server in every home. However, the digital home could feasibly offer as many environmental benefits as costs and environmentalists and green businesses should at least consider these benefits before dismissing this latest wave of new technologies as environmentally harmful.
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