Home networking options converging
LAS VEGAS (IDG) -- With market researchers predicting that there will be more than 8 million home networks in the U.S. by 2002, it's no surprise that the home networking areas at Comdex this week are crowded with visitors, picking up literature and asking lots of questions.
Chief among their concerns are issues related to standards and to determining whether phone lines, power lines or wireless infrastructure are best for setting up a home network. Both points might well be moot in the not-so-distant future.
Top-tier vendors and smaller players are involved in standards working groups for wireless and phone-line options, and there already are workable standards for the market, including 802.11b.
When it comes to choosing the best infrastructure, vendors no longer seem inclined to argue that one is necessarily better than another. Instead, the theme here this year is that various options will work together.
A typical future home network will use existing phone lines to connect PCs, with power lines used as the networking vehicle for major appliances and wireless used for mobility.
Although some analysts and industry observers herald the day that major "white" appliances will be part of home networks, vendors here this week say that is a distant vision at best and that they are focusing more on how to connect consumer electronic devices.
Gone this year are the panel discussions featuring wild scenarios of homes in which literally anything that can be networked is linked. The hype that arose from those discussions and similar visions of the Future Home put off some people.
"Why does your toaster need to talk to the 'Net?" questioned Tracy Castoe of Las Vegas during a visit to the Philips Electronics NV home of the future. The Philips home was not networked; that vendor's vision seems to basically amount to multiple Philips' products in every room.
Castoe has a TV in most rooms of her house and she isn't averse to having a home network. She just doesn't want it to extend to her kitchen.
Others, however, do. For them, wireless is becoming a viable option. That's what vendors are counting on.
Cisco Systems Inc., 3Com Corp., Lucent Technologies Inc., National Semiconductor Corp. and a raft of other vendors are trumpeting wireless products for home networking. The general idea is that home network users will employ wireless devices to extend their networks to every room.
Internet appliances including Web pads and smaller handheld products can easily be moved from room to room using wireless protocols and standards that provide enough range to cover most homes. National Semiconductor and Lucent have teamed to create a wireless Web pad that can be carried around the house and used for access to the Internet, e-mail, calendars and the like from anywhere.
Some options offer much slower rates, but that doesn't necessarily make them less viable.
For instance, data transfer rates using existing power lines might be only 1M bps or 2M bps, and that option has the further problem of high interference. However, those issues won't matter all that much if the objective isn't very fast transfer rates, but the ability to use, for instance, a built-in touchpad on the refrigerator to access recipes online.
There is an emerging sense at Comdex that wireless seems to be the great enabler for home networks. Vendors are pushing the concept of spread-spectrum connectivity, using a low-level radio spectrum for which the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does not require a license. The FCC does review products before allowing them to go on the market for use in the unlicensed spectrum.
The HomeRF (for radio frequency) Working Group has a demonstration area at the show and is demonstrating how wireless will work companionably with fixed-wire home networking options.
"What HomeRF allows you to do is to be flexible," said Wayne Caswell, the working group's marketing chairman who is giving the hourly demonstrations at the show. During that presentation, he displays a graphic comparing the different home networking options, but he says, "There's no clear winner and there shouldn't be."
Higher speed wireless is the catalyst for pulling the options together.
"The 11M bit technology really changes everything," said David Cohen, wireless product manager for 3Com. In the past, the wireless message was less enthusiastic. " 'We may be slow, but we're also real expensive,' isn't really a great sales pitch," he said.
The influx of expected products using wireless Bluetooth technology also is likely to make a difference. Bluetooth uses low-level radio signals to connect devices to one another for networking over short distances. Deemed ideal for home networks, Bluetooth products will soon undergo interoperability tests -- a requirement to receive a seal of approval that is aimed at allaying user worries that devices won't work together.
As various users and vendors have said here this week, home networking is a logical step in the progression of technology. Increasingly, we live in a networked world that will find devices connected to each other in ways we didn't dream of just a few years ago.
During his keynote speech, Cisco chief John Chambers showed off a gasoline pump that is set to be installed in North Carolina soon and will allow users to access the Internet while they pump gas. Users will be able to order groceries while they wait for the tank to fill or obtain maps to get driving directions. Such functions, as Chambers noted, will extend to our home lives as well.
"I can get directions while I pump gas and never let Elaine know I was really lost," he said, referring to his wife of 25 years.
Chambers predicted that current forecasts for growth involving the Internet and networking will prove to be far too low. Given the buzz here this week, the forecast that 8 million U.S. homes will be networked within the next few years might be one that needs to be updated.
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