COMDEX: Can't get enough home networking

COMDEX: Can't get enough home networking

Homes with multiple PCs and multiple adults wanting to get on the Internet at the same time have sparked the frenzied home-networking market, which a panel here yesterday at Comdex/Fall '98 predicted will explode in the coming months.

"I believe home networking and applications support to be the next major segment of the (IT) market to take off, very soon," said Hyeon Lee, general manager of residential networks for Lucent Technologies, who also said attempts to predict where things will stand a year or more from now are pointless.

What is known is that consumers are going to be bombarded with a range of inexpensive - $US200 or less - options for connecting PCs to PCs, PCs to TVs, and either one to every other digital necessity or toy in the house. Run for cover. The blitz begins within the next couple of months and will last through 1999.

Comdex wouldn't be Comdex without the Future World angle and Tim Bajarin, president of the aptly-named Creative Strategies, has hosted two home-networking sessions in two days. Both times he spoke of the distant day when that great American home focal-point - the refrigerator - will be a digital device, with Internet access and the ability to scan bar codes to keep an inventory and automatically order food online.

It's not farfetched to imagine moving the couch into the kitchen and surfing the fridge all day. Futurists here have predicted that such a time will arrive, and vendors are showing networks with flat-panel TVs hooked to PCs so that after a long day of writing code, users can watch a little digital TV and during commercials check e-mail and Web surf with a remote.

Such hyper-connectivity will allow new approaches to home security and monitoring, and, if vendor theatrical presentations are to be believed, make us all feel closer to our loved ones, connecting us digitally room to room.

Simple card adapters are already available that will link two PCs together so that both stay connected to cyberspace without, vendors swear, an appreciable drop in speed. The networked computers can share files, allow humans to play video games together, and print when they get the urge.

During today's panel, at which Lee also spoke, Bajarin said that after it became known he was hosting two home networking discussions at Comdex, he was contacted by a stream of companies either with products available or close to market.

Some companies connect home networks through power lines, others through existing phone lines. Some have simple plug-and-play devices, others are wireless, a few contain elements of both, and the top-tier of pending home-networking possibilities will require ripping walls open.

There also are the usual spate of issues, problems and disadvantages with the various options. Chief concerns seem to involve the arrival of digital subscriber lines (DSL) in more US areas and how that will affect home networking, evolving standards for some of the connectivity technologies and consumer clamor for speed.

"The need for speed is always going to be there, no matter how much you give them, so we're always working on that,'' said Todd Green, director of product marketing for Intelogis, a home-networking Novell spinoff at the panel.

His company's power-line approach will offer transfer speeds at or above 4M bits per second in 2000. Creating a home network over a power line does allow for a pitfall because other home networking enthusiasts in the neighborhood could pick up your digital signal. Intelogis' product, which costs around $US60, includes data encryption so that users can block access to anyone not on the approved list.

Intel has given a name to those who will run out and buy inexpensive, easy-to-use, home-networking devices: "Eager connectors."

Dan Sweeney, who oversees home networking for Intel, had the grace to admit the name is corny.

Whatever they are called, those consumers will spur the nascent market because they are likely to tell a half a dozen others how simple and cheap it was to set up a home network.

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