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Networking firms hit home

Networking companies, once known only to corporate systems administrators, are making their way into the consumer market.

3 min read
LAS VEGAS--Through the concourses of Comdex and beyond--in places like airports and corporate offices--handheld devices are clearly gaining steam as an information tool.

Networking companies are drooling over the communications potential for these gadgets, "companion notebook" computers, and other devices yet to come. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. (See related story)

High-speed technologies, the emergence of wireless connections, and the

Eric Schmidt
Novell CEO Eric Schmidt
convergence of media such as television and the Internet are opening doors for communications equipment at a startling rate, with the potential for use of cable modems, DSL (digital subscriber line) technology, and ISDN connections creating opportunities for networking companies that were unimaginable not long ago.

This consumerization of networking is being driven by the Internet and the ability to get important information and communicate easily over vast distances using a residential connection, a remote dial-up modem from the road, or even a wireless communications device.

Even internetworking monoliths such as Cisco Systems are getting into the act, entering territory normally associated with customers, rather than overworked network administrators. Cisco is working with Intel and Microsoft to deliver a set-top box device for television sets using a cable connection.

And the growing use of devices such as the PalmPilot from 3Com and the variety of small machines based on the Windows CE operating system from Microsoft could have ramifications far beyond their current uses as repositories for calendars and phone numbers, especially with the advent of wireless networks, according to analysts.

Networking is certainly acquiring a prominent platform to flaunt its message, with the CEOs of both Cisco and networking software company Novell delivering keynotes at this year's Comdex show, normally an industry confab associated with consumers.

There is also the fanciful talk of futurists who dream of simple Net appliances located around the home that allow people to view a selected variety of content. Eckhard Pfeiffer, CEO of Compaq Computer, explained such a "house of the future" during his Comdex keynote earlier this week. (See related story)

Consumers will use networking devices en masse when they become as comfortable with them as they are with telephones, according to Mike McGuire, senior analyst with market researcher Dataquest, whether it be through wireless connections on the road or physical network lines. "The consumer does not want to deal with the concept of a network," he said.

And therein lies the challenge for networking firms that enter this market, as well as more consumer-oriented device makers: How can networking technology be offered in ways similar to phone service, where all of the underlying complexity of the telephone network is hidden by a simple numeric interface?

There are also issues concerning how the devices themselves function. Hewlett-Packard has developed a specification called JetSend that executives call a "content negotiation protocol" that offers a good example of what is necessary for everybody and everything to be networked.

When embedded in devices such as printers, digital cameras, or possibly handheld devices, the software could allow someone, for example, to print something using any printer.

Atul Bhatnagar, general manager of HP's information appliance operation, said tools such as these could open up a world of communications without the need for underlying device drivers or other technology. "In a lot of ways, this will enhance communications, person to person," Bhatnager said.

A diverse array of companies, such as Cisco, Microsoft, and Canon, have announced support for the effort. Other technologies are aiding built-in networking functions, like Intel's recently announced plans to embed a networking card in the base motherboard of a PC, obviating the need for a separate piece of hardware.

A burgeoning industry could develop based on current partnerships between networking firms and service providers in which the provider of a high-speed connection could serve as an integration point, offering DSL modems or a residential routing device to a customer looking to add Net services, according to Howard Charney, senior vice president of Cisco's small and medium-sized business unit.

Other alternatives should make it easier for consumers to network a home themselves. Microsoft recently signed an agreement with Tut Systems to develop a system that connects Windows-based PCs in a home. (See related story)

Some see great hope in affordable wireless networking. But those expecting communications services to rival the "anyone can do it" simplicity of the phone any time soon could be in for a disappointment.

As Dataquest's McGuire said, "That, I think, is a ways off."  

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