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Lost in Cyberspace

Home networking long on technology, short on applications

This article was originally published on date by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

The engineers are back in charge.

At least for a while.

It's cyclical, this variation in who's driving the computer industry at any one time. During the '90s, when the Internet was exploding in both popularity and usefulness, the industry was driven by marketing and sales. The technical issues of going online were already solved, and the Internet and World Wide Web were both up and running – it was simply a matter of taking advantage of them, of businesses creating products and services that consumers wanted.

But we're not at that point yet in home networking, which seems likely to be the next big advance in the computer revolution. (When longtime foes such as IBM, Sun and Microsoft, or rival chipmakers Intel, AMD and Motorola, all come together to support a new open standard for home networks, you can be sure they all think there is money to be made. Much as the 1990s were known as the decade of the Internet, and the '80s the decade of the personal computer, this next decade may well be known as the decade of the home network.)

The recent Connections 2000 conference in San Diego showed that while there are some great ideas floating around for the fully networked home, there are a lot of technical details yet to be ironed out before the marketing and sales forces can start creating products with appeal for the mass market.

The main force behind the interest in home networks is the growing availability and popularity of high-speed residential Internet access via cable modem and DSL. As the price of high-speed Internet access continues to drop and more and more families subscribe to these services, the market for a home network (which allows multiple computers to all access the Internet via the single connection) likewise grows.

And what that impetus for home networks provides is an opportunity to connect other, non-PC devices to said networks – devices like home security systems, appliances and telephones. Companies at the Connections 2000 conference were showing off systems that will allow consumers to access their e-mail from the TV, use their PC for voice mail or have the oven start heating up just before they leave work and head for home.

None of which, to be honest, seem all that compelling. As one salesperson from Avio Digital admitted, "We're spending more time here (at the conference) talking about how great all this technology is than we are telling consumers how it can actually benefit them."

As mentioned, many of the heavyweights of the computer industry are coming together to get the home network market to the point that the marketing and sales departments can take over. To get there, though, they first have to create a series of common standards so that any devices that might be on a home network – everything from washing machines to Palm Pilots, PCs to garage-door openers – can communicate with each other.

The standards body that's bringing together industry heavyweights to try to create a level playing field (much as happened with the Internet and the Web) is the Open Services Gateway Initiative, which looks to be making advances in gaining the kind of cooperation needed to make it work. Microsoft – typically hostile to open standards – had a booth at the Connections 2000 show that had Windows systems talking with a Linux Internet device.

And Avio's home network system actually holds out commercial promise. With its system, you can use a single network to share not only Internet access and computer data throughout your home, but also music and video data as well. Say your multi-disc CD changer is in the living room, but you're working in your office. You could simply access the control panel on your computer screen and pick the CD you want to listen to, and the sound would be piped to your computer speakers. Or pipe a RealAudio blues show from a New Zealand Web site through your home stereo system.

This offer of full-control, media on demand actually would give the consumer the kind of power and choice in their home entertainment that cable TV has long promised. No more being stuck with what's on TV or going to the video rental store to get that night's movie – simply go to a pay-per-view Web site and download the movie.

While that kind of digital control is still in the future, it's a future that's closer now than even just a few months ago.

A few weeks back, in a column about e-businesses finding the market more crowded, I included on a list of sites having trouble getting enough merchandise to attract visitors. challenged me to look deeper, and upon second review, their site doesn't – and didn't – warrant being in that group. is kind of like an online version of TJMaxx or Ross Dress for Less for books, CDs, videos/DVDs, and videogames – they don't usually have the latest releases, but stuff six months to a year old, sometimes secondhand, and always at least 50 percent off the list price.