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Ten years ago, one of the biggest hits at a major trade show on new network technology was the Internet Toaster. By typing a command on a networked computer anywhere in the world, you could turn the modified Sunbeam Deluxe on and off, or have the toast pop up.

The Internet was still small back then, with a mere 300,000 computers online. But it was growing like a weed. And one of the big jokes was that we would soon be putting our toasters, microwave ovens and refrigerators on the Net. The joke was all the funnier because nobody could quite figure out why this kind of connectivity for household appliances would be desirable: we just knew that networked appliances would be part of our collective future.

Connecting a toaster to the Internet was not easy. For starters, the toaster needed a computer powerful enough to “speak” the so-called Internet Protocol-the digital standard that allows computers on the Net to communicate with one another. The contraption’s creators-Internet pioneers John Romkey and Simon Hackett-linked their toaster to a power switch that was in turn hooked to the printer port of a Net-connected laptop computer. Romkey and Hackett tinkered for a year to get it to work.

Fast-forward a decade. More than 300 million computers are connected to the Internet-but there aren’t many more household appliances than there were back when the Internet Toaster debuted. The inexpensive microcontrollers that are typically found in microwave ovens and fancy toasters lack the power to implement the Internet Protocol and therefore cannot practically go online.

That barrier is starting to crumble, thanks largely to a bit of technical wizardry by Santa Clara, CA, startup iReady. This company has reduced the Internet Protocol circuitry onto a silicon chip. The device, dubbed the Internet Tuner, lets companies connect dumb machines to the Internet without using expensive microprocessors. This technology could be the engine behind home networks of the next decade-but the developments made so far already have me worried about the potential for abuse.

I still can’t figure out why you would want to put a toaster on the Net. But early this year, Japanese housewares manufacturer Zojirushi plans to begin marketing an Internet-enabled hot pot that can send short messages to cellular telephones using a built-in wireless modem. Zojirushi will pitch the hot pot to the adult children of aging parents. Whenever the pot is used, explains iReady president Ryo Koyama, it automatically transmits a message letting the child know that the parents are okay and enjoying a cup of fresh tea.

iReady doesn’t market chips. Instead, it sells intellectual property-specifically, the wiring diagram for the tens of thousands of transistors and resistors that constitute the Internet Tuner. Companies such as Zojirushi can then use this information to build Internet functionality into the silicon chips that they are already putting into their products-an incremental cost of virtually zero. Essentially, the iReady technology makes it possible to add Internet access to a device for little more than the cost of the patent license.

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