Home computer network products will quickly advance past the PC-centric roots they now occupy and make the jump to include entertainment and eventually home automation, according to 3Com and Dataquest.
The primary reason consumers now install a home network is to share an ISP and, to a lesser extent, peripheral devices, said Richard Redelfs, 3Com's VP/general manager for home and wireless connectivity.
However, for the technology to become widely adopted in more than the 800,000 homes that are now networked, home networks must incorporate entertainment devices, Internet telephony and home automation, he said.
"We know people will spend money on entertainment [products]. So this category will help accelerate the adoption of home networking," said Redelfs.
There are 18 million multi-PC homes in the U.S., and this number will more than double to 40 million by next year due to the large number of low-priced PCs available, Redelfs said.
Several steps need to be taken by vendors and retailers to take advantage of this pool of potential home network customer, he said. "Right now networks scare people, even the PC-savvy."
Manufacturers must stress ease of use when designing home network kits. And retailers need to target their higher-income customers who have or are in the process of buying a second PC and spend many hours each month on the web, Redelfs maintained.
Van Baker, a Dataquest analyst, said another key will be the inclusion of set-top appliances into the home network. This could start taking place as early as next July, when set-top boxes are expected to be available at retail.
The final result, he said, will be a totally integrated home, with computers, TV, appliance and telephones all working together, along with new products like Tivo and MP3 music jukeboxes.
"There will be a sentient home in five to 10 years where everything is wired together and all content will be digital and transportable between devices," Baker said.
Between Ethernet phone-line, wireless RF and power-line-based products, 3Com and Dataquest see the first two as the most likely to succeed, with the latter product fading.
Phone-line systems use a home's telephone wire to carry the data between PCs, with the benefit that, in most cases, it uses an already existing infrastructure -- which eliminates the need for costly installation. Also, most consumers can handle placing the necessary Ethernet card inside a PC.
"3Com feels Ethernet phone-line types will do well," said Redelfs. "It is easy to install, and the data transfer rate speeds will quickly increase."
3Com is slated to roll out its first phone-line-based kit next month. It will have 10MB per second data speed, up from the 1MB per second that had been available. The company's road map has a 32MB per second product out in the near future, to be quickly followed by 100MB per second, Redelfs said.
3Com waited for the 10MB per second technology to become available before entering the market, he said, because it did not think the 1MB capacity was sufficient.
Power-line-based networks have the same benefit as phone lines -- an existing network of wires -- but the facts that the power lines carry electricity and are part of the local power grid creates several technological and security problems.
"Dataquest is not bullish on power line," Baker said.
Redelfs agreed, adding that the technology appeared to be a great solution at first, but issues surrounding data security, line noise and expense appear to be limiting its usefulness.
"3Com engineers don't feel it can be made reliable enough. It won't even work across a surge protector, and there are supposed to be very high return rates right now for the available products -- up to 50%," Redelfs said.
Because RF does not need any wiring, it potentially offers the best solution. "Consumers will not want wireless if there is not a standard. Right now," said Baker, the industry "is fragmented, needs standards, and must be consolidated."
"RF is the wild card. It is expensive today, but we believe the price of wireless will come down. And eventually wireless is the right answer," Redelfs said.