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E-Commerce Takes Prominent Place in [email protected]’s Home of the Future

NEW YORK — [email protected], Redwood City, CA, came here this week to give the Net industry and news media a look at what “home” might look like in a future wired by the Web portal and Internet service provider.

Along with computer networking giant Cisco Systems Inc., San Jose, CA, [email protected] set up shop in a loft off Manhattan’s Union Square and filled it with interactive goodies: TVs, PCs, appliances and hand-held devices connected to the Web, as well as all the internal networking necessary to make them work together. From a business point of view, the exercise was to show how companies will be able to bring their content — and their e-commerce — straight into people’s homes.

“For companies to sustain the viability of their business models in the future, it’s very important that we have a deep relationship with a loyal customer rather than just a Web server,” said Susan Bratton, vice president of market development at [email protected].

To a large extent, companies are realizing that peoples’ living rooms are prime retail space. The thinking is that if businesses create flexible interactive technology, people will choose the ways they want to use it at home and accommodate it into their lives in the way they’re most comfortable.

“They’ll determine what applications they want to use with what room,” Don Apruzzese, director of business development at ShareWare Inc., El Dorado Hills, CA, said as he demonstrated a touchpad browser installed in a refrigerator. ShareWare is a home networking technology company partly owned by Cisco. “You can't change [consumers’] behavior. You have to have a product that’s flexible to their behavior.”

Family members living in [email protected]’s future house could use Apruzzese’s refrigerator browser to post recipes pulled from the Web or to leave messages for each other — the sort of thing they now do with magnets. Of course, most devices like this are still in their “clunky stage,” much like the VCRs of the early ’80s. More importantly, all the devices in [email protected]’s house can work only as well as the bandwidth in consumers’ areas will allow. The companies hope to upgrade the technology and content in peoples’ homes as their connectivity improves.

One of the products likely to receive broad acceptance first — beginning next year, [email protected] executives hope — is the set-top box. The technology is similar to the cable boxes that rest on top of people’s television sets, and at least two companies make them already.

Through a set-top box that turned a television set into an interactive platform, [email protected] demonstrated a mock commercial that projected something very similar to an e-commerce site directly into the Manhattan apartment’s den. As a Domino’s Pizza spot ran on the screen, an executive explained how an icon might pop up in the corner of the screen asking viewers, “Want to buy a pizza?” He then showed how people lounging at home can use their remote controls much like a mouse arrow, clicking on the icon to bring up a commerce page.

The page lets consumers check off what toppings they want on their pizza, the size they want and what credit card they want billed for the transaction. Much like current digital wallet technology, the networked home of the future could store credit card numbers and personal preference data. By clicking on “order,” the viewer orders the pizza much as he would now do over the telephone.

In addition to allowing e-commerce, the showcased technologies expand the reach content providers can offer their advertiser clients. Seventy percent of the [email protected]’s revenue comes from online ads and sponsorships. With reach that conceivably could stretch into every room in peoples’ homes, the company stands to add a great deal to its topline.

“Almost everywhere you look,” Bratton said, “there are revenue streams for a company like [email protected] in this space.”

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