Connected Home, Rethinking Microsoft, and Wireless Health Issues

We have a virtual smorgasbord this week. First up is something I should have mentioned sooner: Partly because of reader reaction to the digital media articles in Windows 2000 Magazine UPDATE, we've launched an email newsletter about consumer-oriented technologies called Connected Home EXPRESS. Connected Home EXPRESS is bi-weekly, and David Chernicoff, I, and other writers from Windows 2000 Magazine contribute to it. Check it out today.

But it gets better. We're launching a print magazine, to be called Connected Home Magazine, this fall. In October, we'll introduce the new publication as a special issue of Windows 2000 Magazine. In January 2002, the publication will go monthly. If you're a fan of the how-to-oriented content in Windows 2000 Magazine and want to know more about digital audio, video, photography, home networking, and other related technologies, Connected Home Magazine is the place to turn. I hope you'll join us.

I spent a few days last week at the Microsoft campus in Redmond and something a Microsoft employee said made me think. We were touring the Microsoft Home, which I'll write about next month in Connected Home EXPRESS, when someone asked how all the pieces of this connected home would come together. Our guide said, "Microsoft makes enabling technologies. We're not going to make that wall plate \[from which you control lighting, security, and other facets of the connected home\]. That's something a partner would sell."

Although the phrase about enabling technologies might sound like pure marketing, it makes sense and accurately reflects Microsoft's current work with Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), on the Web with Microsoft .NET, and in other places. Many of us—myself included—tend to think of Microsoft as a huge monopoly that wants to get its tendrils into every money-making business on earth. But Microsoft does work to bring other companies together under standardized technology umbrellas. And the company is big enough to make it happen.

Now that doesn't get Microsoft completely off the hook, perception-wise. A desire to continue its market dominance clearly drives the company's vision for the future—and that vision isn't as customer-driven as it might be. Something I've learned to ask at virtually every product introduction is—who asked for this? One has to wonder where some product features come from: Are they customer driven or designed to further integrate technologies that might not make sense together. (Think about Active Desktop or those annoying Office Assistant characters. Surely the company that came up with them must be doing something wrong.)

Wireless Networking and Health
I'd like to thank everyone who responded to the wireless networking editorials; I received an amazing amount of feedback in general and information about several resources regarding my wireless health concern query. The health concerns, it seems, are still open to debate. But the prevailing wisdom is good news for wireless fans.

One bit of information I received seemed more credible than any other. Gordon Comrie forwarded a recent New York Times interview with noted microwave expert Dr. Eleanor R. Adair. Adair says that when people hear about the dangers from cell phones, police radar, power lines, and wireless networks, they assume that microwaves are like x-rays. "Microwaves are at the other end of the electromagnetic spectrum from high-energy radiation like X-rays and gamma rays," she notes. "And unlike gamma rays and X-rays, which can break chemical bonds and injure cells, even causing cancer, microwaves can only heat cells. Of course, if cells get hot enough, they can die, but the heat level has to be closer to that in an oven than the extremely low level from cell phones."

Adair has studied the effects of microwaves, first on monkeys and then on humans. And her experience debunks some common myths. Standing in front of or staring into a microwave oven, for example, isn't dangerous, as many people believe—even if the oven leaks. Microwaves cannot make men sterile, she says. And if anything, most people and monkeys alike enjoy being inside a microwave field. In fact, Adair helps promote the notion of individualized microwave heating units, as Professor Robert Pound of Harvard University first proposed. One problem, of course, is public perception.

"In the microwave band, you are millions of times lower in frequency and there the quantum energy is so low that they can't do any damage to the cells whatsoever," she told the Times. "And most people don't realize this. Somehow, something is missing in their basic science education.... Learn the spectrum. Learn that you're in far worse shape if you lie out on the beach in the middle of summer and you soak up that ultraviolet radiation than you are if you use your cell phone."

Other readers forwarded similar explanations. One mentioned a conversation he had with a Motorola employee who explained that cell phones work on a half-watt or less, compared to a microwave oven, which uses between 650 watts and maybe as much as 900 watts). Rob Robinson says that "the \[radio frequency\] RF output of . . . a TV set \[is\] of the same order of power as the output of a wireless 802.11 LAN, which is similar to the output of a mobile phone. The frequency ranges are different but all have a similar heating effect on water."

But it's amazing how many anecdotal problems this technology has. Some people report dizziness or headaches when working around wireless networks, for example. And I suppose that suspicions about such technologies will always exist. But it seems—given the research to date—that you have little to fear. Stay tuned, however; I'll let you know if I hear anything different.

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