I know what you're thinking. That once again, we'll be predicting that this is the year of the home network. Well, you're right...but this time, we mean it.

True, analysts have been beating the home networking drum for the past couple of years, only to see their predictions fall well short of expectations as consumers show only pallid interest in adopting technologies to link all of their personal computers and devices. But this year, especially as wireless technologies become more mature and more easily managed, consumers will have a slew of new networking options to choose from, and they'll increasingly be adding more essential devices that truly flourish when connected to a personal network.

Specifically, the coming year should be an important one for the development of the 802.11 wireless protocol. It's quickly becoming the primary wireless standard for wireless LAN technology, and in 2001, it essentially dispatched the competing HomeRF wireless standard and snagged more than 70 percent of the market for wireless home networking nodes shipped. In 2001, 802.11b blew by HomeRF, and in 2002, competing movements within 802.11 should push it to even greater heights.

That competition within 802.11 should be the highlight of home networking news in the coming year. The heaviest of hitters–both Intel and Cisco–are streamlining their wireless businesses, and banking heavily on the development of the faster 802.11a technology. Look for both companies to release a variety of wireless LAN products this year that use the newer 802.11a baseline technology.

At the same time that 802.11a is maturing, the group that originated the 802.11 protocol, the IEEE, has publicly backed a competing next-gen version, called 802.11g. (Stay with me here!) The "G" task group has agreed to basic terms for the technology, which includes speeds up to the "wired" range of 54 Mbps, and allows for backwards compatibility with the first generation 802.11b products already deployed in some networks.

On the wired side, HomePNA, the technology that uses phonelines as the backbone of a networked system, might slide a bit in market share this year, despite efforts to get to transmission speeds up to 100 Mbps. Products based on the HomePlug 1.0 specification, which uses electrical wiring to route signals, should also erode HomePNA market share as HomePlug 1.0 silicon hits the street from makers like Cogency, Conexant and Enikia. And who knows if CEA's R7 powerline home networking group can get its act together over the next 12 months.

The gateway market should mature quite a bit this year as well, and the name of the game in gateways will be compatibility. Gateway makers will offer more flexibility in the gateways we'll see hitting the market; they'll have multiple ports for Ethernet connections, wireless connections, as well as compatibility with wired protocols like HomePNA and HomePlug. The future of home networking will eventually encompass both wired and wireless technologies, and gateway makers will be hedging their bets by including multiple functionalities in most of the products they release in the coming year.