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Home servers coming into focus

As U.S. computer makers continue to develop technologies for bringing centralized servers into the home, Japanese electronics firms too are marshaling resources for this market.

As U.S. computer makers continue to develop technologies for bringing centralized servers into the home, Japanese electronics firms too are marshaling resources for this market.

Though it is still difficult to predict how these products will manifest themselves in Japan, home electronics products will slowly take on "home server" functions, according to according to a report in the online edition of Japan's Nikkei Business Publications.

The so-called home server is a computer or computer-centric device that would store and distribute various types of information throughout the home, including video, telephone, Web, email, page, fax, and other data. Such a device could govern home appliance automation, connect various computing devices throughout the home, and manage large amounts of information such as films or television programming.

Japanese companies Matsushita Electric Industrial, NEC, Sony, and Hitachi all have launched divisions to develop some form of the home server, and prototypes of the devices are expected to be shown as early as this year, according to the report.

Matsushita has formed a Home Information Infrastructure project, and NEC is developing a server that uses an optical disk. Nikkei further reports that earlier this year both Hitachi and the JapanBroadcasting Science & Technical Research Laboratories displayed a prototype of a server for the home.

On the domestic front, companies including Intel, Compaq, and IBM are investing in home server research and development, striving to produce a computer that is powerful enough to handle large and varied amounts of information and cheap enough to attract a broad base of consumers.

"It's possible to put together a home network now," said independent analyst Richard Zwetchkenbaum. "But companies like IBM are dealing with the fact that nearly half the marketplace wants a sub-$1,000 computer. So the question is, how do you deliver value to a marketplace on a commodity level?"

IBM, whose Home Director product controls household appliances such as air conditioners, lights, coffee makers, and alarms, has made an experimental foray into home server territory in conjunction with ComputerLife. As part of a project called "CyberHome 2000," the magazine invited IBM to create the kitchen of a futuristic, ultra-wired home.

"The idea of a central device, or an 'information furnace,' has been kicking around for a while," said IBM spokesperson Andrew Hayden. "But it became more concrete with the CyberHome kitchen."

IBM's prototype let users inventory the kitchen's contents through bar codes, compare that inventory to various recipes on the Internet, and order missing ingredients online. It connected through the server to other computers in the house, including the video doorbell, and provided telephone, email, and audio messaging.

The home server has the potential to manage "anything that requires information inside the home," said Hayden. The goal? "To centralize that information, distribute it throughout the home, and make it relevant to the environment."

But IBM's home server plans are still "conceptual," according to Hayden, and the company doesn't expect a viable consumer device before three to five years have passed.

Other companies may be closer to bringing the home server to market, however. Zwetchkenbaum estimated that reasonably priced home networking may be available within the next 18 months.

"As the consumer market slows, this is going to be hook for vendors," said Zwetchkenbaum. "It will be one to two years before we see it in significant numbers, and even then it will be a minority of system sales. But it will be an increasingly important part of the total message that the industry sends to customers."