wireome Networks: A novelty now, but experts predict a boom

November 23, 1998|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Picture this: You're working late at the office and hankering for a meal.

With a click, you call up your refrigerator on your office PC to see what's inside (a bar-code reader within the fridge keeps a running inventory). The refrigerator suggests lasagna but warns that you'll need to buy ricotta cheese - and a few other items. You e-mail a shopping list to your spouse's cell phone and, with another click, set the oven to the correct temperature so it's hot by the time you get home.

Life with the Jetsons? Try Ozzie and Harriet. While intelligent homes have long been fodder for science fiction - and a real but recent novelty for corporate executives and Silicon Valley gadget freaks - the Jetsons' lifestyle finally may arrive for average Americans.

High-tech companies are developing simple and inexpensive ways to wire together all the digital paraphernalia in the house.

"The networked home is on the horizon," analyst Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies Inc. told a crowd last week at Comdex in Las Vegas. As the largest computer show in the world, Comdex is a bellwether for high-tech trends.

With nearly a dozen companies showing off technologies to link PCs and other gadgets, this year's buzz centered on home networking.

While computer networks have been the nerve centers of offices for years, they're a rarity at home, with only 300,000 U.S. houses wired up. But many analysts think the technology is set to take off.

"This is only the tip of the iceberg," says Bajarin.

The driving force: 40 million U.S. homes have a personal computer, and a third of those have more than one, according to San Jose research firm Dataquest. As PC prices sink below $1,000 - and some Comdex exhibitors displayed sub-$500 desktop machines - the number of multicomputer families is expected to grow quickly. And as it does, suppliers are betting that people will want to link those PCs together.

Why? Money. With a home network, dad's PC and little Suzie's PC can use the household laser printer, duke it out in a multiplayer game or share a high-speed Internet connection. As fast but pricey Internet technologies such as ISDN, ADSL and cable modems become more common, home networks could save multi-PC households hundreds of dollars a year by eliminating the need for extra modems, phone lines or Internet accounts.

"Our research indicates that the ability for multiple users to share Internet access is the driving force behind the adoption of computer networks in the home," says Michael Gartenberg, research director at GartnerGroup.

What's more, companies are working to make the technology as simple as plugging in a phone jack - so you won't have to turn your teen-ager into a system administrator or your house into a spider's web of data cables.

Two Silicon Valley companies - Epigram and Tut Systems Inc. - showed technology that networks home digitalia through the telephone wiring. Meanwhile, ShareWave Inc., which has attracted $42 million in venture funding from heavyweights such as Microsoft, Intel and Cisco Systems, announced a wireless home networking technology. Other companies are trying to pump data through AC power outlets and coaxial TV cables.

Meanwhile, Diamond Multimedia is shipping a package called HomeFree, which creates a wireless network between two or more PCs for file swapping, printing, Internet access and multiplayer gaming. The kit costs less than $200 to link two computers and allows machines up to 150 feet apart to communicate, even iwhen separated by walls, floors and ceilings.

The technology is not intrusive, so you'll be able to talk with a friend on the phone while your appliances use the same lines to carry on digital conversations with one another.

Initially, most companies will be hawking home networks designed to circulate data at speeds ranging from 1 million to 4 million bits per second - far faster than most dial-up modems and quick enough to shuttle almost everything but real-time video.

As the speeds of these networks improve, they'll be fast enough to ferry TV signals, so that a DVD-ROM drive in the living room could show movies on any television in the house. Most companies say their technology will cost less than $150 per computer.

But the home networking gear makers are excited about more than PCs. As cheap microprocessors proliferate in household appliances, gadgets ranging from latte makers to lawn mowers will become "smart." And a home network will allow them to talk to one another.

Philips Electronics, the Dutch giant, last week unveiled a device called Ambi, which uses ShareWave's wireless networking technology to turn TV into a second computer "desktop." Than means the children can play a game or surf the Net in the living room while you do your taxes in the home office - all tapping the power of a single PC. The gadget, which will be available in the spring, will sell for $500 to $700.

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