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Tech Industry

Home servers coming in 1998

The core hardware element of corporate networks will come to the living room next year.

The core hardware element of corporate networks will come to the living room next year.

Matsushita Electric, Sony, and others are expected to announce plans or release low-cost servers for the home next year. These servers will initially function as Web access devices for the home, say observers, but will in time become the nerve center of the wired home.

Unlike their corporate counterparts, the servers will be cheap--selling for less than $500--and based around a wide variety of technology. Chip makers such as Hitachi should benefit, as well as software makers such as WebTV.

"They are not here yet, but they are likely to become big next year and especially over the next three years," said James Staten, a consumer computing analyst at Dataquest. "It will be a server to the other PCs in the home. It will have a fat 'pipe' to the Internet and smaller 'pipes' to devices in the home." A pipe is industry parlance for a data transmission conduit.

The move toward the home server comes as a result of two trends: declining hardware prices and Internet ubiquity. As hardware prices come down, more families are going to own more than one PC. Meanwhile, electronic devices such as telephones are gaining capabilities that will allow them to be hooked to the Net.

It makes sense to network all these devices, said Staten. Without a server, consumers will have to get an Internet account for each piece of hardware. The home server will allow home users to streamline their communication links.

"With $500 PCs, you are going to see families with two PCs and one server and they will all be connected through the Net," he said.

Matsushita will begin selling systems for "smart homes" next year, according to reports in the online version of Nikkei Business Publications, a Japanese news service. Central to the smart home concept will be a server designed specifically to control the home LAN and the appliances attached to it.

The company will also open a 100-square-meter model home in Shinagawa, near Tokyo, next fall as a way to promote the technology, said Nikkei. Other sources have said Sony is interested in the concept.

At Comdex, Compaq chief executive officer Eckhard Pfeiffer said that the home server was a future market for the Houston manufacturer as well.

Although the term "server" connotes a high-powered system, Staten said that these machines will be anything but. Because they will primarily function as access devices, their processing power need not be that high.

Further, because home servers will be some owners' third or fourth computer, cost will likely be a paramount concern. Home servers, therefore, are likely to use low cost processors from Mips or Hitachi, which can cost OEMs around $10. By contrast, low-end Intel chips cost twice that, he said. Processors by Mips, Hitachi, and others are also tailored to use cheaper, embedded operating systems.

One company that could become a big software provider in this area is WebTV, Staten conjectured. WebTV 3, the next iteration of the WebTV concept, will likely contain features that will allow a WebTV box to function as a server.

How these devices will link to the outside world remains in flux, said Staten. In the near term, home server systems will likely be linked together through telephone lines. In the future, cable will act as the link between the home server and the outside world while wireless technology will link the home server to the wired appliances used inside.