Tuesday, August 01, 2000

Arrested Development Competing standards and diverging visions have made home networking a ‘pipe dream.’ Sure, it’s cool stuff, but where’s the ROI?

Home networks have arrived — sort of — after two decades of false starts and false hopes.

According to Frost & Sullivan and Parks Associates, there are well over 1 million home networks; Parks asserts the number may be as high as 3 million.

Home networking equipment used to be the province of small- and medium-sized concerns such as AMX, Crestron, Intellon, Leviton, Lutron, and Niles Audio. Today, the industry standards committees are crowded with the largest companies in electronics, communications and computing. Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT), Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), IBM (NYSE: IBM), AT&T (NYSE: T), Lucent Technologies (NYSE: LU), Ericsson (Nasdaq: ERICY), Nortel Networks (NYSE: NT), 3Com (Nasdaq: COMS), Nokia (NYSE: NOK), Apple Computer Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) and Honeywell (NYSE: HON), to name a few, are active in developing and promoting one or more connectivity or control standards.

It’s difficult to find an electronics giant without an avowed commitment to home networking.

Some analyst organizations, such as Parks Associates, would argue that the home automation industry is due for a growth spurt. "We’ve actually found greater consumer acceptance for the concept of centrally controlled appliances than for home computer networks," notes Kurt Scherf, an analyst with Parks.

Industry leaders believe that the home networking phenomenon will take off as the Internet becomes a prime source of bandwidth-intensive entertainment programming as well as information. Surely, they reason, users will want to distribute such content throughout the residence over high-bandwidth connections. But no one is prepared to discount the possibility that all electronic devices in the home will eventually share a common data channel. The only debate is on how quickly such absolute convergence will occur.

Advocacy of a network that could accommodate PCs, televisions, audio systems, telephones and appliances with equal facility would appear to be the safest course to follow, at least in the long run. But of the many proposed standards for home networking, by no means are all designed to provision audio and video optimally, at least not in their initial versions. At least two of the standards, IEEE 3194 (FireWire) and HAVi (Home Audi-Video Interoperability), have been conceived with a narrow range of high-resolution audio and video applications in mind. The one standard which appears to do it all, Avio Digital’s MediaWire, has attracted virtually no industry support.

FireWire is another speed demon with top throughput in the gigabits per second and an ATM-like transport and media access layer for handling multiple A/V streams. FireWire normally takes the form of a snake with several signal-carrying cables and a power conductor, though optical fiber and wireless versions have been prototyped. Signal regeneration is used to overcome copper losses to maintain the extremely high throughput rates claimed. In spite of this provision, extreme range is fairly short — only a few meters.

Originally developed by Apple Computer in the mid 1990s, FireWire has been published and products have been available for a couple of years. To this extent, it is further along than competing physical layer standards, but assessments of its future are mixed.

"We see it moving forward," says Scherf of Parks Associates. "They’ve got a pretty good licensing pool together."

From the article "Arrested Development Competing standards and diverging visions have made home networking a ‘pipe dream.’ Sure, it’s cool stuff, but where’s the ROI?" by Daniel Sweeney.

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