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Melding Many Machines

Mitch Sein is a big, bearded guy with an infectious smile. But confronted with the typical home entertainment center, answering machine or PC, he’s not happy. Consider the gyrations necessary to navigate these supposedly user-friendly electronics-none of which easily go together. As senior manager of IBM’s consumer systems and software group, Stein takes it personally. That’s why he’s exploring a concept he calls Life Networking, which seeks to blend computing effortlessly into people’s everyday worlds.

In Stein’s Watson lab “family room,” phone messages and e-mail, TV viewing, Web-surfing and other aspects of home control are integrated onto a big television screen. Stein imitates a man returning home from work. His presence is detected, lights come on, and his dormant (but never off) system awakes. “Hello Mitch,” the computer’s voice greets him. “Several messages are waiting for you.”

Although many other companies are experimenting with such systems, few have IBM’s expertise in speech recognition, graphics, storage, processing power and electronic security (see sidebar “The Couple That Computes Together”). It was that extensive technical base, coupled with marketing clout, that brought Stein, Apple’s former director of Human Interface Technologies and a founder of five startups, to Big Blue. At a smaller company, he notes, “I came to the realization that maybe, best case, I’d be able to do one or two point products. But I knew I would never be able to attack the whole platform.”

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