Home Networking Becomes More Entertaining


Home networking is about to take on home entertainment, and it will be an interesting place to be for both consumers and vendors alike. For the past several years, home networks have been driven by consumers purchasing broadband Internet access and connecting their second (or third) computer for their families. But the broadband market is saturating, and there are only so many more PCs that families who can afford multiple computers can purchase. The real action is going to be non-PC devices that are connected to the home Ethernet, such as stereo equipment, cameras, phones and video servers. Some of this gear is hitting the market now, and more is on its way. Whether this stuff works remains to be seen, but clearly the concept of home networking is expanding quickly.

We have been through once before, back in the mid-1990s when "convergence" was all the rage. But this time we might actually see traction on the idea. Why? Several reasons.

* First off, the networking gear is almost free or fully paid for now. I had a chance to spend some time with Sean Keohane, CEO of SMC Networks, who recently visited my office. He mentioned how he is selling Gigabit Ethernet cards at less than $75 a pop, and can still make a profit at this price point. His costs on 10/100 Ethernet cards are in single digits, making Ethernet everywhere a possibility. But it isn't just about NICs. Now that many homes are wired with networks and have routers and broadband Internet access, the incremental cost for adding these entertainment devices (or call them what you will) is nearly nil. (Read more of our interview with Keohane on VARBusiness' Web site.)

* Second, the entertainment portion of the network is being brought to you by technology advances geared toward business users. Products like the Spectralink wireless phones that run over the 802.11b network infrastructure are just one example. And while they are pricey and too finicky for the average homeowner to deal with, there are other products to come in this brave new world of non-PC devices on the home network. How about your stereo system? Linksys just announced its Wireless-B Media Adapter, which connects your TV or stereo to your computing network and allows you to play your digital music files from your PC on your stereo. SMC is coming out with something similar this fall, and Sony has had a device for several months. I haven't touched any of this gear yet, but hope all of them have better user interfaces than the Voyetra product that I saw several years ago.

* Third, wireless networking is taking off, although putting wireless in the home isn't always a slam dunk. Now McDonald's is joining the wireless access craze: It plans on adding wireless hot spots to many of its fast-food restaurants in several cities, and has them going in San Francisco currently. The latest crop of 802.11g products is finally here, now that the standard is in place. Linksys told me that it is selling huge volumes of the 11g products, and other companies have brought out their own 11g lines in the last several months. The 11g products promise greater throughput, but I haven't had the time to really test this out yet. I am somewhat shy of these predictions, given that the 11a products that I have tested were disappointing. These products also promised big performance gains, but I only saw about a 20 percent improvement over the 11b products.

Wireless is where the action is, but I am a bigger fan of the powerline networking devices and hope these will get some play from the vendors because they just work. In several homes that I have tried to connect wireless access points and failed, the powerline devices just shine. These products work over the AC power lines of your home and, provided that you don't plug them into a surge protector (which happened at one friend's house), they work flawlessly and without a great deal of configuration of various parameters. I like them because they work in every house that I've tried them, and they reduce my neighborhood support time significantly. This isn't the case with wireless networks: Most homes have dead spots that the wireless signals don't reach, and typically these are the precise places that a user wants to drag their laptop and work from. The nice thing about powerline products is as long as you have AC power outlet nearby, you can communicate.

Unfortunately, networking manufacturers haven't really gotten excited about powerline. It could be a combination of them getting burned by the phone-line products (which are terrible and I don't recommend) or because they have too little bandwidth or because there aren't too many chipset suppliers for the gear. I hope this changes and we have as active a development community for powerline as we do for wireless in the near future.

In any event, wireless is getting a big push from Intel, which is spending tons of dough to convince people to buy its Centrino laptops that have 11b wireless networks built-in. Intel wasted a lot of time and money on another wireless standard called HomeRF, which went nowhere, so hopefully this will pay off for both WiFi and Intel. But again, this isn't just about NICs: What gets me out of bed in the morning and into my lab is the promise of new and interesting ways that wireless networks can be integrated into other kinds of products -- wireless cameras, wireless connections to my stereo gear,and so forth.

In addition to the Linksys product mentioned above, I'll give you another example of how adding wireless can be a big boon. SMC is working on a new product, an all-in-one cable modem/router/wireless access point that can eliminate up to three different boxes. It is called the 8013WG; look for it in the fall. Many home networks get started when the family gets involved in broadband access. This is one way to simplify their lives and also expand their networks easily. We'll see how easily once SMC sends me the box and I try it out for myself.

This leads me to my last point: Many cable companies are finally getting with the networking program. Until relatively recently, many cable operators didn't want their customers to install home networks. They were afraid that networks will clog their pipes, or consume more IP addresses, or increase their support problems. The smarter ones are figuring out that networks can sell more cable modems and raise their monthly nut that they collect from their customer. The trouble is the cable companies do a miserable job of supporting their networks and have used the promise of Internet access as a means to finance a network upgrade -- a network that will mostly be used to sell more video channels rather than more data bandwidth. But perhaps they are finally getting things right.

There is still a lot of work before we can have a consolidated Jetsons-like home where the stereo downloads the music it thinks we like to hear and turns the volume down when the wireless phone rings. But the products and approaches I mentioned are all promising signs that home networks are going Hollywood and the unified field theory is a bit closer to reality.