In the battle for the hearts and minds of consumers seeking online services, many companies originally chose to go it alone with Web-based offerings that targeted the limited number of PC users who dominated the early Internet. But with the range of non-PC devices and extra Web-related content that's appeared in recent years, it's become obvious to some companies that an open alliance would be necessary so that each company wouldn't have to duplicate the skill sets, features, and services of its competitors. As a result, 2 years ago Cisco and 10 other companies formed the nonprofit Internet Home Alliance (IHA) as a joint venture. Today, dozens of companies participate in the alliance, and its goal is to make the Internet as pervasive as other home utilities such as water, gas, and electricity.

"We all agreed that none of us had a chance of opening up this emerging Internet market," said Bill Kenney, vice president for Emerging Home Solutions at Sears, Roebuck and Co., in a meeting with "Connected Home Magazine" earlier this year. "We needed to collaborate. Wouldn't it be neat, we said, if we could round up our collective customer bases, offer them a wider range of services, and stimulate the creation of this new market?"

The alliance is promoting what it calls the Internet Lifestyle, where competing companies work together to educate consumers about the benefits of online marketplaces. The alliance formally announced IHA last October, and it has focused on consumer experiences on the Internet ever since. "For the Internet to break into the mass market, it has to get easier," Kenney noted. "Consumers don't care about the underlying technology; they don't even know what it means. But they do have needs, dilemmas. The Internet can make a significant difference in addressing those dilemmas. And businesses need to understand that and add value to the proposition."

The IHA is not a standards organization such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which oversees Web technology standards. Instead, IHA works with groups of businesses to ensure that they're offering compelling and unique customer solutions. In many situations, no single company can offer an end-to-end solution for a customer, so the alliance will match two or more companies together—companies that might never have otherwise worked together. Kenny discussed a Sears pilot in which the company worked with Home Director to install interior structured wiring in new homes. The wiring included high-bandwidth, high-speed wiring behind the walls that enables the transfer of video, music, and other information around the homes. Neither company would have been able to offer the service on its own, and new home buyers will benefit from the newfound relationship.

With the coming PC-plus era, Kenney and others expect a proliferation of connected devices. But Kenney says that gadgets aren't the solution. "It's not about more gadgets," he said. "I don't want a smart thermometer; I want simplicity. How about a clock radio that sets the thermometer for you when you turn it off at night? When you wake up, it could turn on the coffee or whatever." For this kind of scenario to take place, previously unrelated companies will need to work together. And this is the whole point behind the alliance.

The big problem with getting competitors together, of course, is that they tend to infight and favor certain companies over others. IHA is resolved to operate above that situation and think about the customer first. "I'm from Sears, but Best Buy is in the alliance, too," Kenney said. "There's more than enough good stuff to go around for everyone."

Bob Vila's popular "Home Again" cable series is promoting IHA during the 2001-2002 TV season; the show focuses on two homes, one in Medford, Massachusetts, the other in Quechee Lake, Vermont. Both homes are being renovated to include numerous connected-home features, which IHA members such as Cisco, Home Director, Panasonic, and Sears will install and integrate. "Throughout my career, I have focused on helping people create the home of their dreams," said host Bob Vila. "Technology is becoming increasingly important in the lives of homeowners."