Steve Jobs' Shadow Looms Large Over CES

That's because many here view Jobs as perhaps the only technology executive who may be able to deliver on the holy grail of the connected home. They cite Apple's success solving the one-time music download logjam with the elegant iPod, describing the device as just the kind of compelling user experience that needs to be brought to home networking.

Microsoft, Cisco Systems and Hewlett-Packard are all at CES touting their plans to capture the connected home opportunity. But the question remains: Do any of them separately or together have the right stuff to deliver an iPodian-like experience and excitement?

At Macworld in San Francisco on Tuesday, Jobs delivered Apple's latest take on the digital lifestyle: the iPhone, a device that marries iPod and mobile phone functionality and runs Mac OS X applications, and Apple TV, a device that allows video on computers to be played on televisions.

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Slide Show: The iPhone And Apple TV

The iPhone and Apple TV join the iPod and a slew of other offerings on Apple's digital lifestyle roster, which includes the AirPort Express wireless media streaming device, AirPort Extreme wireless base station, sleek iMac and Mac mini desktops, iSight Webcam, iTunes Music Store, iLife digital media suite (which has the iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, iWeb and GarageBand apps), iChat AV videoconferencing and instant-messaging software, QuickTime media streaming software, Front Row remote control media software and Bonjour "instant networking" technology.

"Apple is a sleeping giant in a lot of categories," said Monster Cable Product CEO Noel Lee, who calls Jobs one of his heroes for creating the iPod phenomenon and making it a must-have gadget, with an installed base of what some estimate at as many as 80 million devices. "You don't know what they are up to, but when they come out, they come out and do it right," he added.

Lee, who was showcasing his company's new Monster Central home theater and lighting control system at CES, said Apple has delivered killer products in a number of different categories, and there's a good chance Apple will drive forward the home computer networking market. Of course, he said Monster is developing home networking cable products for both the Macintosh and Windows Vista platforms. "Whoever wins, we are going to be there," he said.

Kim Anthony Parker, director of product development for Sonance's iPort iPod home audio docking system, which was being showcased at CES, said he'd like to see Apple deliver more home networking functionality. He said many companies offered MP3 hardware before Apple, but Apple took it up a notch.

"Apple has proven that design, simplicity along with a good set of features really does prove to be what the consumer wants," Parker said. "It is not all about technical widgets and digits. It's more about digital content than it really is about the hardware. It is all about making that content available to you wherever you are."

Parker said he sees Apple and Microsoft competing aggressively in the home networking market. "I think user interfacewise, Apple will win," he said.

Microsoft makes the interface a little too difficult, according to Parker. "One thing Apple could do to drive more home networking functionality is become less proprietary with its technology," he said.

The iPod phenomenon was in full force at CES with iPod integration touted by a number of companies. ViewSonic unveiled what it calls the world's first portable projector with an integrated iPod docking station and a 19-inch LCD monitor integrated with an iPod docking station. As a technology demonstration, ViewSonic also is showcasing a 37-inch HDTV with an iPod dock. Phillips, meanwhile, unveiled a portable DVD player with an iPod dock.

Even former Apple CEO John Sculley, now a partner with Rho Ventures, was at the show heaping high praise on Jobs and Apple in a discussion on who will control the home networking market. He said Jobs has done a brilliant job with the iPod, delivering a game-changing product for audio and video content by focusing less on technology and more on the user experience.

"It totally game-changed the entire experience," Sculley said.

NEXT: What does former Apple CEO John Sculley think?

"The iPod is a very simple set of first principles," Sculley explained. "I think it is first principles that are largely transferable to home automation. Will Apple be successful in home automation? I have no idea, but are those principles that they have delivered so successfully with the iPod as a user experience brand that is part of an end-to-end system applicable [in home networking]? Very likely."

Sculley said Microsoft's Achilles heel in the home networking wars could well be the end-to-end, tightly controlled approach Apple took with the iPod.

"No one has ever accused Microsoft of being an innovator," he said. "But they are totally brilliant at recognizing what the good stuff is and figuring out how to make more money than anybody else. They are an incredibly brilliant company."

The iPod, Sculley added, may be Microsoft's biggest threat. "Microsoft's model has traditionally been one that [Intel's] Andy Grove and [Microsoft's] Bill Gates defined back in the 1980s, which is that it is no longer about proprietary systems. It is about taking a layer and owning it horizontally. It is not clear to me that owning a horizontal layer will give you the kind of market position in the home that you have with personal computers, and the iPod is a good example of that."

Still, Sculley said, Microsoft's Xbox game console has made the software giant a leading player the gaming market, and the company could use that wedge to gain a bigger piece of home networking.

Another company that could give Apple possibly the biggest run for its money in the connected home market is Cisco's Linksys unit, which plans to launch a full line of connected home products this fall. Those products will allow consumers to access a wide range of digital content from a wireless device, with a slick new graphic user interface.

Shown at CES, the interface aggregates content like on-demand movie downloads, music, radio, games and a range of other digital content. Consumers access the interface, under development for the last two years, with a unique ring device that fits easily into the palm of the hand for the user to point and click at the on-screen content guidebook on a large-screen TV.

Cisco Chairman and CEO John Chambers is slated to outline his vision for the connected home in a CES address on Tuesday. "We bring a lot of things to that market," Chambers said, speaking about the home networking space and the possible clash with Apple at a press reception Monday night. "If I were Steve [Jobs], I'd rather partner with Cisco than compete. I think the consumers would like that better."

Ultimately, Sculley said, it's unlikely that it will be just one company that delivers the home automation experience because it's unrealistic to expect one device to control everything in the home. Nevertheless, he said the winners will be the ones that "start with the user experience and not the technology."

Additional reporting by Barbara Darrow and Jennifer Follett

*Story updated with information on Apple's Macworld product introductions and Apple's digital lifestyle products.