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Home networking products come knocking

3Com, Intel, Proxim and Netgear are all building small devices that will allow people to wirelessly link their computers and appliances to communicate and share a Net connection.

LAS VEGAS--Ready or not, wireless technology will soon invade the home.

3Com, Intel, Proxim and Netgear, a Nortel Networks spinoff, are all building small devices that will allow people to wirelessly link their desktop computers and laptops--and in the future, Internet appliances and other electronic equipment--so they can communicate and share a Net connection. That's not new, but the imminent delivery of such technology is.

Home networking has long been touted by tech and consumer electronics companies, but the market has been slow to take off. Previous technology that connected PCs together included Ethernet-based kits, which forced people to string cables between computers, and "phoneline" kits, which allowed people to link their PCs by plugging them into regular phone jacks.

"No one ever wakes up on a Saturday morning and says, 'I want a home network,'" said David Cohen, 3Com's wireless product manager.

Analysts and company executives said this week that three factors are expected to increase interest in home networking: high-speed Net access through cable or digital subscriber line (DSL); new Internet appliances, such as Web pads and Internet radios; and new wireless networking kits.

3Com is demonstrating a wireless appliance at the Comdex technology trade show this week that connects computers to a high-speed Net connection. The device--which will cost less than $500 and ship by year's end--is essentially an add-on to a DSL or cable modem.

Proxim, Linksys and Netgear will release their products by year's end or early next year. Intel will ship its wireless appliance this spring and plans to partner with DSL and cable operators that would resell the device to consumers. Intel is also considering selling the product in retail stores, said Dan Sweeney, general manager of Intel's home networking operation.

A wireless appliance is just one piece of the wireless home networking puzzle. The tech companies are also selling wireless PC cards and adapters that have built-in radios in them. Consumers must install the PC cards and adapters into their PCs. The new wireless appliance, which can be placed anywhere in the home, is the device that links all the computers together to the Net.

Parks Associates analyst Kurt Scherf said the new wireless appliances are a good, simple, entry-level product for people who want to start networking their PCs and other devices wirelessly. "It's a good first step for consumers," he said.

Tech companies, such as Cisco Systems, Motorola and IBM spinoff Home Director, have also been building more complex home networking devices, called "residential gateways," which are similar to the wireless devices but more sophisticated.

Residential gateways allow consumers to securely connect electronic devices such as PCs, appliances and security systems with their phone service and high-speed Net access. Analysts believe the residential gateways will be sold by service providers, such as cable operators, that want to offer phone services and other new features.

As for the simpler wireless devices, the companies support different wireless standards. The issue won't affect consumers who buy wireless technology that run on the same standard, but analysts have predicted the wireless standards fight in the home will be similar to the VHS-Beta wars that broke out when VCRs first hit the market some 20 years ago.

3Com, Lucent Technologies, Apple Computer, Dell Computer, Cisco Systems, Linksys and others support a standard called Wi-Fi, or 802.11B, that runs at 11 mbps. Intel, Motorola and others support a standard called HomeRF that runs at 1.6 mbps, but will reach 10 mbps by next summer.

Proxim's Symphony line of products supports HomeRF, while its Farallon line of products supports Wi-Fi. Netgear supports its own wireless standard, but its next-generation products will be compatible with Wi-Fi, said Vivek Pathela, Netgear's director of product management and marketing.

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