Consumer confab buzz centers around home networking

Digital glitz and gadgets were the predictable trimmings at this years Consumer Electronics Show, where 1,800 exhibitors crammed 1.2 million square feet of floor space in and around the Las Vegas Convention Center.

CES attendees take a look at the  latest technology on display. PHOTO COURTESY CEA

Topping the heaps of electronic gadgetry were two trendlines: Home networking, and a deepening confluence between personal computer and entertainment technologies. Combined, the two trends created a booth blitz of digital home and digital lifestyle scenarios, ranging in applicability from practical (more places and ways to share photographs) to dubious (a networkable frying pan.)

Arming the thickly promulgated digita lifestyle vision at CES were electronic books, Web tablets, cell phones and cell phone covers of every imaginable variety, and a kitchen UPC scanner that turned on ovens for making pre-packaged foods. There were CD scratch-fixers, wireless PDA/e-mail/Web receptors, and a thin, half-dollar-sized orb designed to hold 500 Megabytes of data (250 MB per side.) The latter, developed by a consortium calling itself DataPlay, is a round version of Sony Corp.s memory sticks, and is theoretically insertable into digital cameras, MP-3 players and other handheld devices.

Photography also morphed well beyond traditional boundaries, from image capture to processing to display. If digital photography unfolds the way it was trumpeted at CES, for example, future generations will likely find their elders (read: us) quaint when we instinctively draw a camera faceward when snapping a photo. The new units have a wide, roomy viewfinder, best used at arms length.

Dropping off film at the store for development becomes passe in the digital world shown at CES, as does the meaning of quick turnaround. Digital cameras instantly upload imagesthe faster, the better, which is good for broadband service providers. Photo displays also advance, from todays paper prints to plasma displays hung on the wall, framed in wood, and connected to a remote server running a continuous or static slideshow.

Home networking

Notably, many of the digital widgets at CES wont hold much intrigue in isolation, and without being interconnected to other devices within the home. That, in part, is what prompted amazingly assured booth talk about home networks...and you just plug it in to your home network... almost as a foregone conclusion. The realities of home networking are anything but easy, as attendees at the annual SCTE Emerging Technologies conference learned in New Orleans, held just days after CES. For starters, there are too many huge standards efforts in play, which makes it hard for whole-home service providers, like cable. The dilemma:  Its difficult to pick winners, but shortsighted to not jump in somehow.

Technology issues around home networks are plentiful: Security, so that a shared apartment wall doesnt make unwitting spies out of neighbors using wireless networks. Frequency allocation, so that microwaves and klystron lights, soon to become more prevalent in public and office buildings, dont interfere with wireless home networks. Debate also lingers over which device becomes the head unit for the home networkthe set-top, a souped-up cable modem, or a wholly new gateway unit.

Among the home networking flavors at CES were:

Ethernet. Most existing home networks are Ethernet-based, and were installed by early adopter types to share computer peripherals like the laser printer, back when it was a major investment, or the scanner. The problem with settling on Ethernet as a going-forward strategy to interconnect home entertainment, computing and appliances is that it usually violates the no new wires rule. Ethernet, as a rule, works better over the cat 5 grade of wire. Most existing residences dont have it.

2Wires HomePortal series won multiple honors at CES.

HomePNA. The PNA stands for Phoneline Network Alliance, and is a consortium of 70-plus companies rallying around the use of telephone wires to distribute information in a home network. The earliest work from this group is already on sale todayHPNA 1.0, which delivers data to connected devices at a speed of about 1 Mbps. Version 2.0 comes out this year, and delivers 11 Mbps. The plus is that most homes already have telephone wires nested in the walls, which means that no new wires are required.

Wireless home networks. Wireless proponents tend to swirl around one of three types: Bluetooth, HomeRF,  and 802.11b, an IEEE standard that is starting to become known as Wi-Fi. Each has more than 70 supplier proponents. Bluetooth is slowestaround 768 kbpsand cheap, and is good for short-range stuff, like computer speakers that dont need wires to play sound, or communication between PDAs and cell phones. Wi-Fi is faster (11 Mbps), more expensive, and spans longer distances (300 feet). HomeRF is in the middleabout 1.6 Mbps now, rising to 10 Mbps next summer. All three will face security and interference issues.

Powerline. Another multi-supplier consortium, HomePlug, aims to make existing power wires the distribution media of choice for home networks. Long a dream but never fast enough to do anything substantial, the latest group of powerline proponents aims for 10 Mbps this year.

With all the choice, it comes as no surprise that vendors are starting to develop home networking units that contain every conceivable type of home networking media and protocol, so that service providers can be ready for whatever a consumer tries to connect.

Intel Corp. is working on one, as is Boston-area startup Ucentric Systems, and 2Wire, among others.

Although a do-everything home networking box makes sense, it simultaneously poses a strategic risk. It has to do with the links to the broadband service provider. Most gateways have two: Cable, and DSL. If a multi-pay cable customer happily interconnected all the stuff in the house to the gateway, then decided to switch to DSL, its a one-wire change. Of course, the converse is also true.

Microsofts 01 messagesMicrosofts high-end game player, the X-box, was unveiled with great fanfare (read: squealing shills in the audience) by Chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates on the morning of January 6. Gates, who was given a generous two hours for his keynote, saved X-box until lastso for the entirety of his remarks, the unit sat silently on a center-stage podium, draped in black.

X-Box is Microsofts response to Sony Corp.s holiday buzzmaker, the PlayStation 2, and contains enough under-the-hood firepower to make even the most muscular PC seem anemic. Among the items on the X-box spec sheet:

A 733-Intel microprocessor,
64 Mbytes of RAM,
An 8-Gbyte hard drive,
A custom graphics chip, co-developed by Microsoft and nVidea,  which runs at 250 MHz,
A 4-port game controller with 10/100 Ethernet broadband links, and
Maximum video resolution of 1920 x 1080.

Sony/Cablevision specs: Primary box:

300 MIPS application processor
32MB DRAM, 16MB flash memory
DOCSIS and DAVIC cable modem
3D graphics support
Affinity card slot for e-commerce
i.LINK (IEEE-1394) port with digital transmission content protection
USB port x 2
Digital audio, S-video, video, RF
Smart card-based security
Source: Sony Corp.

X-box is expected to be available this autumn. Microsoft executives repeated several times during the presentation that the demo unit was running at one-fifth its ultimate power.

Gates cable-specific comments were fairly thin, compared to the amount of time he dedicated to Microsofts Ultimate TV work with DirecTV. (That could be explained by the mere makeup of CES, which is generally more targeted to retailerssuch as those carrying more DirecTV and EchoStar product than cable.)

Gates said to watch for the first roll out of (cable) digital set-top boxes, where the software in those devices allows people to work between their video, and between the Internet, to have rich access to what theyre interested in. He flashed two cable-specific first screens, one AT&T Broadband, and one TV Cabo, calling the two efforts part of Microsofts extreme entertainment focus.

The Sony box

Two other cable-specific set-top developments marked this years CES: Sony Corp. at last unveiled its work with Cablevision Systems, and Motorola unveiled a line of retail boxes.

Sonys Interactive  Digital Cable Receiver.

For Sony and Cablevision, it was the first time theyd let anyone see the new box and its services. Officials described both a primary box (see sidebar above for specs) for use in the main TV-viewing room, and a secondary box with fewer features, earmarked for additional outlets. Notably, Sony is also handling both middleware and the electronic program guide. Services, to launch in June, will include VOD, e-commerce, some interactive TV applications, and built-in TV-Internet access.

Motorola, which in its General Instrument days bucked against retail set-tops, saying theyd be too expensive after retail markups, changed that tune at CES. It came out with three models, ranging from a DCT-2000 with a POD (point of deployment) receptacle, to a DCT-2000 with Dolby Digital and Dolby Pro Logic Surround sound, as well as a one- or three-DVD changer. Suggested retail price for the midline box (one DVD): a hefty $849.

Motorolas DCT-2020 set-top.

Cable operators who saw Motorolas retail line had mixed reactions. Some called it a good effort; others wondered why they hadnt been contacted for input on features, and particularly questioned the need for a three-DVD changer.

The boxes hit retail shelves as early as this coming September, pending on how negotiations with stores go.

As is often the case at consumer-oriented shows, the digital buzz emerging from CES was more hype than reality. But consumers are voting with dollars: Consumer electronics sales lifted 10 percent in 2000, to $90 billion. Among them, digital TV sales tripled to 625,000 units, while DVD players took rank as the fastest-selling product in history, according to statistics released by the Consumer Electronics Association.

Some, but not all, of the big product trends prevalent at CES will meander into cable subscribers homes; some more quickly than others. PVRs, DVDs and digital cameras are a likely bet. Cables challenge is to remain engaged enough to make room for the new electronic toys their subscribers bring home, while continuing to push on digital video, high-speed Internet and phone services.

If nothing else, CES added one more thing to the to-do list: Home networking.