New Network Technology for the Home

It's a couch potato's Garden of Eden.

In the smart home of the future, media buffs could download the latest hit movie off the Internet at the touch of a button. Another tap of the remote control could send video from their last vacation winging its way to friends and family. And surfers could easily follow their whims to find the latest hit song or installment of Survivor.

That's long been the dream for consumers and high-techies alike. And with an expected fivefold increase ahead in the number of homes with networked computers, the prospects for the wired home are more real than ever.

But there's a snake in this paradise. And it's not just the yards of wires and cables that can entangle even the most intrepid weekend warrior.

It's the baffling barrage of conflicting home entertainment standards that come with attempts to join TVs, DVDs, VCRs and audio equipment into a complex home theater system.

Try to add in the home computer, the latest electronic beast with its own standards and complexities, and total confusion is bound to reign.

The bottom line? For most, what could be a state of home entertainment nirvana ends up being the ninth circle of hell.

Geek Friendly, But Not Novice Friendly

"We're a far cry from Bill Gates' smart house," agrees Charles Golvin, a senior analyst who follows home entertainment technology trends for Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.

Yet his latest research indicates American homes are undergoing a significant change that could eventually lead to the smarter homes many dream of.

According to Forrester's latest study, some 8.1 million homes in the United States will have established a home network by the end of this year. And within five years, that figure will jump to 37 million.

For now, the main reason for homeowners to establish a network is that a growing number of them have multiple computers — and they need to connect them all to the Internet.

"It's really about doing the same thing at home that you do at work — sharing competing resources such as printers and Internet access," says Golvin. But, he adds, "This is still very much an early adopter's market."

That's because current computer networking standards are even more confusing for the average home consumer to grasp than home entertainment standards.

"A lot of the problems come from installation and configuration issues that are geek friendly but not novice friendly," says Golvin. "When it comes to extend the network into your family room, you can't have a device that requires you to put in the IP address or know the sub-net mask or open up certain ports in your firewall."

Technologically ‘Agnostic’ Devices Aid Consumers

One trend that may change all that is the way computer companies and consumer electronics makers are now working together. It's a marriage in which both sides bring the best of their respective worlds to the consumer, making it a lot easier for the average home user to get in on the network bandwagon.

Tom McCarthy, a technology adviser to D&M holdings, the company that owns Japanese consumer electronic brands such as Marantz and Denon, says while computer technology companies have a hold on the networking know-how, home equipment makers have the corner on how to make such devices easier for the average consumer.

"It would be really silly for any consumer electronics company to cook up their own networking standard," says McCarthy. "But the PC companies don't [take] great notice of ease of use. The technology is just a consumable commodity."

So, consumer giants such as Sony are taking a lot of the networking technology and modifying it for new consumer devices. Sony's latest device, RoomLink, for example, is a sleek videocassette-sized device that uses connects any TV to a computer using almost any current networking standard.

Todd Titera, a Sony product manager, says the design of such devices has to be "technology agnostic" since standards — and consumer needs — are constantly changing.

"One size doesn't fit all," says Titera. "We're not dictating what fits in the customer's lifestyle."

While such industry glasnost is a welcome step, some experts note it will take quite a few more years for wired homes to become commonplace.

Laura Behrens, an analyst with GartnerG2, a research firm in Stamford, Conn., says while work is being done to make home networking easier, "Everything about it is still complicated."

Behrens estimates even with full cooperation between the computer and entertainment industries, it will be at least two to five years before unified home network standards can be established.