Users wake up to home networks

The home network is set to rival the enterprise as one of the hottest technology growth areas in 1999.

While the vendors gear up to offer cheap networking kits, IT managers who run a small business on the side are quickly discovering the home network offers real business benefits.

At the end of a long day in the networked office, hard-working IT professionals often go home to still more work on the PC.

These IT professionals -- keen to replicate the office network in the home -- and budding small businesses are forming the groundswell to yet another networking revolution.

The home network, or "personal network" as some in the industry would have it, is set to become one of the hottest technology growth areas in 1999 if vendors rise to meet user demand.

According to a recent IDC study, the rapid infiltration of PCs into the home with Internet access is one of the greatest untapped networking markets. Of the 37.3 million home offices in the US, almost eight million have more than two PCs, the IDC report says.

A survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) last year revealed that 2.4 million or 36 per cent of all Australian households frequently use a home computer and 18 per cent of all households access the Internet from home. Across all states, 90 per cent of households with a computer also have a printer, the ABS survey says.

While statistics about home networking itself are hard to find in Australia, US statistics show that 910,000 home offices in the US now have a network. IDC expects that number to skyrocket to more than eight million by 2002.

Meanwhile, according to the Yankee Group, a third of US households with PCs are interested in creating home networks. Typically, users deploy home networking products to connect multiple PCs for file and print sharing, in addition to allowing shared access to the Internet.

In Australia, the home networking trend is just beginning to surface with many users discovering the limitations of standard Windows peer-to-peer networking and investigating more complex options.

Take Nick and Heather Jackson for example. The couple operate their own freelance writing and graphics company from home using two PCs, a notebook and printer connected via a small network.

"Having one PC and a printer in the house just didn't work," Nick Jackson said.

The Jacksons moved beyond peer-to-peer networking, to the use of Ethernet connections and a 3Com hub when it became clear they needed more advanced connections to handle demand.

In addition, they have a modem connection to Telstra Big Pond cable for Internet and e-mail access.

Also on the drawing board is installing a server for the desktop computers both to centralise data and provide additional storage space. While Jackson admits the setup is more advanced than a typical small business in other sectors such as retail, he believes home networks will grow in demand, fuelled by rapid growth in handheld PCs and the Internet.

According to Jackson -- speaking from his other role as Novell's Asia Pacific business development director -- vendors are expecting a "blowout" in SOHO networking demand soon, but it is yet to take off.

"All of the groundswell is starting to take place," he said. "My gut feeling is it's a very solid trend." Companies such as Compaq, Microsoft and Cisco recently announced plans to introduce networking-related equipment for the home.

Meanwhile, others like Intel and 3Com are already aggressively targeting the space with home networking kits and Internet access packages.

Part-time photographer and home networker David Spencer agrees the home networking trend is beginning to kick off in Australia.

"Vendors are starting to produce home-oriented products, but it has only come to this [more mature] level in less than 12 months -- or close to eight months," he said.

Around six months ago, Spencer set up a basic network consisting of an Intel In-Business 100Mbit/sec Fast Ethernet hub to connect three PCs throughout his home to support his "on-the-side" wedding and commercial photography business.

According to Spencer, if the Australian workforce begins to follow US trends, where around 46 per cent of the workforce work from home, the home networking environment will become crucial to IT heavyweights.

Unlike Spencer and Jackson, who deploy home networks to assist in running small part-time businesses from their homes, Ryuji Uematsu has set up a home network as a test bed for a small office network.

Uematsu, marketing director for start-up design company Neofunckt, has been running an Ethernet network between two computers and a printer from a home office.

Uematsu doesn't think the network is a crucial part of Neofunckt's business at this stage, he believes it will make the company run substantially more efficiently and productively in the future.

"By connecting the four computers and two printers we will be able to transfer files between computers a lot quicker, print from any computer and surf the Net from all computers with only one modem connection."

While home networking is beginning to penetrate small businesses such as Neofunckt through the benefits it can add, convincing home consumers of the benefits home networking brings to family PCs may take some time before becoming popular culture.

Chris Chu, a 35-year-old PC user visiting a consumer show promoting home networks in the US, told an IDG journalist: "It makes my life too complicated; I'll need a home IT manager to keep everything under control.

"Maybe if you grew up on that sort of thing, you could handle it." But what will this shift in work ethics and SOHO computing mean to IT vendors?

According to Graham Penn, general manager research at IDC Australia, network communications is running out of growth in the corporate space. Home networking will provide a new area for vendors to flex their muscles.

But if they all wish for a slice of the home-made pie, it's going to be hard work, according to one home networking enthusiast.

Andrew Cheung, general manager of Internet development company xIBA Internetwork Business Architects, runs a small peer-to-peer network at home for two PCs, a printer and shared Internet access.

Cheung believes vendors must offer large volumes of cheap, reliable, plug-and-play networking kits or they will not convince users.

"At the moment it's still cheap without these [networking] kits." However, the market is also moving to give PCs control of other home devices such as lights, burglar alarms, and even toasters.

According to Cheung, the idea will catch on well with middle- to upper-class families who may be keen to exploit new technologies; but there is one problem:

"By relying on your PC to run everything, you're actually making the home less reliable," Cheung said.

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