Home networks, once considered a toy for the ultimate geek, cropped up all across the show floor at this year's Comdex, the Wal-Mart of computer trade shows.
With products on offer from network hardware vendors, PC makers and even consumer-electronics giant Sony, it was easy to see that technologies to link digital devices throughout the home have truly arrived, at least on vendors' radar screens.
It was harder to tell what the best tools are for individual users. On show are phone-line networks, power-line networks, two kinds of wireless local area networks (LANs), and wired and wireless options for linking electronic devices. Coming next year will be three more wireless LAN technologies and at least one more wired option.
Consumers this year have more reasons to set up networks in their homes as less-expensive Internet access devices join PCs for family Net access, more bandwidth comes into homes with cable modems and digital subscriber line (DSL), and more entertainment becomes available over the Internet that can be played on home devices.
If a family wants to share files, peripherals or an Internet connection, or if one user has multiple PCs, they need a way to link them together. Ethernet, the standard for enterprise LANs, requires wiring that can be expensive and difficult to install.
However, consumers who came here looking for home-network options found enough choices to make even a hard-core computer buff's head spin. They may even find conflicts that will keep them from using two of the technologies together. What's more, the options are set to expand before they consolidate.
Nor are home LANs left out of the explosion of wire-free offerings. Most prominent are wireless LANs using the IEEE 802.11b specification approved last year, which delivers a maximum 11Mbps (bits per second), slightly faster than standard Ethernet.
A bevy of networking and system makers, including Compaq, Sony and Cisco, offer these wireless LANs for both enterprises and homes. Although standardised and, in theory, interoperable among different vendors, these components are more expensive than some other options. Sony prices a PC Card antenna and central access point device at $US599.
Bay Networks spin-off NetGear showed off an alternative that is under consideration for the designation IEEE 802.1e. Wireless11x adds in QoS (quality-of-service) control so voice calls or video transmissions across a LAN can be guaranteed to be both smooth and steady, said Patrick Lo, president and chief executive officer of NetGear. This feature is critical for wireless LANs in the home because the applications are different from those in enterprises, Lo said. Sharewave and Philips Electronics NV also will offer 802.11e products.
"It's not just file and printer sharing, but in the home, it's media-centric," Lo said.
This group of technologies will take a big leap to between 36Mbps and 52Mbps as early as next year with the 802.11a standard. Development started on this specification first, before the current 802.11b was put together as a quick, lower-speed solution. The new standard will shift the wireless LANs from the current 2.4GHz range to around 5GHz.