Connecting the home networking dots

There's more to home networking than entertainment, but turning the potential into reality remains a major challenge. Photos: Hooked-up home

The home networking boomlet has paid off for Larry Stone.

The Oakland, Calif., Web designer's expertise with wireless technology has scored him brownie points with his father-in-law, better results at work and even a steady supply of free beer from his neighbor. Despite the rewards, however, he wonders whether home networking is still more hype than reality.

"The promise of it is encouraging, but many of the parts aren't in place," Stone said. "Making content available on your home network is more technical than your average home user can handle. If I didn't enjoy figuring it out, I wouldn't have done it."

News.context

What's new:
There's equipment out there to connect almost anything in your house that has a computer chip, and manufacturers really, really want you to buy it.

Bottom line:
The market is being held back by the complexity of networking products, which keeps some users from exploiting their gear's full potential and keeps other from even trying--or buying.

More stories on home networking

The technology industry is placing big bets on home networking as a catalyst for new sales, not only for nuts-and-bolts equipment such as wireless routers, but for whole new categories of products and services, from Internet phone calling to "smart" kitchen appliances to assisted in-home medical care.

The reality for now, though, is more pedestrian: For most people, home networking is nothing more than a fancy name for sharing the same printer between two computers, or making a broadband connection from any room in the house. Of the 30 million estimated consumer broadband subscribers, about 17 million U.S. households have so far purchased home networking products. Shipments of wireless routers jumped to nearly a billion units in 2004 and are expected to continue to grow at double-digit percentage rates over the next couple years.

Yet there is strong evidence to show that very few buyers of home networking products use their equipment for more than the most rudimentary tasks. Of 2,700 people surveyed recently by research company Parks Associates, about 95 percent said their desktops were connected to their networks. Printers came in second, at about 75 percent, followed by laptops at 49 percent. Fewer than 10 percent of homes had other devices, such as handhelds, stereos, game consoles, televisions and stereo speakers, connected to their networks.

Nearly nine in 10 people surveyed said they use their home networks to share broadband connections. About 42 percent said they use their networks to share digital photos, compared to 35 percent for music, 22 percent for video and 20 percent for games.

Filling the void
Those numbers indicate a big hole for consumer electronics makers, which are hoping to take home networking to the next level in 2005 by targeting the home entertainment market with a slew of new devices, such as media-oriented PCs and networked personal video recorders (PVRs) and DVD players. The goal is to convince people to store lots of digital media in a central location, known as a media server or " hub ," and broadcast the files wirelessly around the house to any number of different devices.

"The challenge for the industry in the short run is to move consumers to multimedia streaming and central drive sharing," said Kurt Scherf, an analyst with Parks Associates. "We know there is a critical mass of homes with at least digital music stored on their home computers--the trick is getting them to access that content over their networks."

One challenge facing consumers interested in building robust home networks is the relative dearth of compatible devices.

Not surprisingly, PCs make up the largest device category that connects to home networks. However, the scarcity of other devices and their low impact is noteworthy.

Manufacturers have been readying new products to tap into home networks, allowing consumers to access content on a broader array of devices.

Last year, TiVo added a networking feature, Home Media Option, to its standard digital video recorder service. The Home Media Option lets

 

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