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Posted at 6:00 p.m. PDT Thursday, October 5, 2000

Networked home put on display


In the promotional videos, home networks don't just link two or more computers to the Internet. They can scan a juice carton as it's tossed into the garbage and then update an electronic grocery list. They control the camera system that identifies a repairman and the doors that let him in. Message to the consumer: Home networks can be effortless and helpful -- and you don't need an engineering degree to use one.

For the real-world view, turn to Sandy Teger and Dave Waks, the husband-and-wife consulting team who hosted this week's Broadband Home conference in Burlingame. Instead of a video, they showed slides of their own networked home. One depicted the color-coded diagram they need to remember how to use their TV and stereo set-up. Another, the plant light system that had a Y2K problem. And in room after room, masses of wires to make it all work together. Message to the industry: Home networks have a long, long way to go. ``The technology is there-- but it's too complex,'' says Teger. ``You can just see the consumers with their eyes rolling. Unless you find a way to make it easy for the end-user, you're going to impede the growth of the home market.''

All sides agree, the home networking market is poised to take off. Of the 20 million U.S. households with more than one computer, only one million has even a basic network linking the machines together so that users can share printers, files and an Internet connection. Broadband Internet access multiplies the reasons for having a home network, with always-on connections and the capacity to transmit Web pages and audio or video files at high speeds. The number of U.S. broadband subscribers will rise from 5.43 million this year to 32 million in 2003, according to New York research firm eMarketer Inc. And as high-speed access takes off, industry experts say, so should home networking. How that will happen is the subject of an enormous industry debate. Ethernet connections through cable that runs through the walls of a house is easy -- but installing the cable is expensive and time-consuming. Other home networking options include wireless networks inside a house or systems that use existing phone jacks or power plugs. They don't all work together, or with different types of computers.

That's a problem that won't easily be solved, said Gordon van Zuiden, president of Monte Sereno-based cyberManor, a firm that helps hook up and service home networks. While consultants like Teger and Waks preach the benefits of uniform standards and industry cooperation, companies in the industry prefer to bet that their proprietary solutions can win a bigger piece of the pie. ``The reality is that no one wants to give up the potential to be the standard-bearer. Every major manufacturer in the world thinks of the home as a phenomenal market. They're not going to play together very easily,'' van Zuiden said. Also, he said, while corporations make networks run smoother by limiting the brands of hardware and software they support, it's unrealistic to expect consumers to do the same thing. ``The home is just an incredible conglomeration of products and devices that people kind of assimilated as they've gone along,'' van Zuiden said. These issues could well mean a promising future for cyberManor, which charges a few thousand dollars to set up a mid-range home network, and several times more for a top-of-the-line set-up that might add huge digital storage capacity and connections to a home theater system. To fill future demand for more consultants, some manufacturers, including Cisco Systems Inc., are considering programs to train and certify home networking technicians.

Teger says she gets by with her personal network administrator, her husband Dave Waks. They're both fans of the industry, of course. When they criticize it, it's as parents would scold a child. ``It's clear to lots of people that the broadband home is the next big thing. It's the thing that follows the Internet,'' says Waks. But, he adds, with several competing technological systems that don't work together and little agreement within the industry about how to forge ahead, ``It's pretty dumb for them to be confusing the customers. It makes it really easy for the customer to say, `Well if they can't figure it out, why should I?''' While both are technologically savvy -- before consulting, Waks cofounded the Prodigy online service and Teger directed multimedia strategy for AT&T Corp. -- they view network outages differently. For Teger, they're a headache; for Waks, a fascinating problem to solve. So when Waks suggested that they send and receive faxes over their home network, Teger balked. Not long before, a password issue had shut down the network, and she wasn't willing to let that happen with a form of communications she considers fundamental. ``I am not a Luddite but on the other hand I want to be sure that our faxing is manageable and is not subject to the vagaries of the server,'' said Teger.

from the Mercury News website

©2001 System Dynamics Inc. All Rights Reserved.