Web Informant #264, 4 October 2001:
The future of home networking


It is hard for me to get back to writing these essays after the events of the past month, but I'll try. On a personal note, I want to thank those of you who took the time to email me and ask about my health and safety -- the number of messages in the past several weeks from all over the world has been very touching and important for getting me back on track. The day of the attacks I was scheduled to appear on TechTV's Silicon Spin show -- that show was finally taped and aired last night. And my Home Networking Survival Guide book is finally out in both physical and online stores: the link will take you to Amazon.

I had a lot of fun writing this book this past summer. Part of the fun was doing research at my neighbor's homes. They thought they were getting some free consulting to help with their home networks, but it really was real-world research for the book. It was an eye-opener for me to see exactly how many products didn't work as advertised or as flawlessly as the vendors intended.

Based on these experiences, I predict that the future for home networking will be a mixed bag. The good news is that USB and phone-line networking products are getting better and more mature, making it easier for just about everyone to install a network without having to dive into the depths of their PCs.

The motivation to hook up your home and share a high-speed Internet connection is a good one, and vendors have responded with a wider range of better Internet access devices for home networks. Both Windows and Mac operating systems are also getting better at recognizing a wider range of networking products. The most recent versions of both make it easier for you to install the network, because networking is now part and parcel to the operating system (well, more recently for Windows than Macs).

The bad news is in several areas. First, wiring up an older home can be anywhere from a piece of cake to nearly impossible, and sometimes there is no way of predicting this before a consumer starts the job and runs into roadblocks along the way. Imagine where the home stereo market would be if this was the case, or any home appliance: Sorry, folks, you will have to return that toaster oven because it doesn't fit on the counter, and it will only toast your muffin correctly if you turn it facing east between the hours of 9 and 10 am?

Making matters worse is a confounding long list of various choices for buyers of Ethernet adapters, and a confounding long series of problems with installing many products.

To get some PCs networked, you might have to upgrade to the most recent version of Windows or Mac OS to recognize these adapters, which means trouble for those households that will want to keep their older PCs running a while longer. (The original Windows 95 version is an example of an operating system that is still very much in force in many of the homes I visited, and very much a problem when it comes to finding a networking adapter that will work properly.)

While wireless products are getting cheaper and better, they aren't yet at the level of quality and easy configuration that a true consumer-grade product requires. And while more Intel-based PC vendors are including network adapters as part of their standard configuration, the situation is still nowhere close to universal. It is universal in the Macintosh world and has been for many years, although older Macs have their own special set of problems.

Another problem is the cable companies themselves, who look at having multiple PCs attached to their cable modems in the same way that the phone companies looked at having multiple residential phones in the late 1960s. Charging extra for additional PCs is just nonsense, and yet one additional reason to purchase a firewall/hub/router product, or what I call frhub in my book. And it was pretty obvious a few weeks ago when Cablevision changed all their IP addresses, and my neighbors started called me because their Internet access went away. Fortunately, all that was required was to power cycle all of the components (cable modem, frhub, and PCs). This is no way to run a railroad.

Still, once you get over these hurdles, there are many uses and applications for home networks. Families will quickly move beyond shared Internet access and branch out into many other areas, including online music and shared family calendars, electronic fax applications, and more. That is the beauty of a working home network: It truly is the gift that keeps on giving.

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David Strom
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