Interest grows in home networking

A third of US households with PCs are interested in connecting PCs, printers, televisions and other devices to create home networks, according to a new study from the Yankee Group.

The 30.5 percent of households with PCs that expressed interest in home networks represent 13.4 percent of all US homes. Although it will be a few more years before home networking hits the mainstream, early adopters are expected to push the trend this year, said Karuna Uppal, an analyst at the Boston-based market research firm.

PCs priced below $US1,000 are "flying off the shelves," Uppal said, and many buyers are picking up a second computer for the home, fueling the rapid rise in Internet use and creating demand for high-speed data access. Increased availability of high-speed access is further pushing the home-networking trend.

"We see a lot of families who want one PC exclusively for surfing the Web and one for other things, so the idea that people would connect them together is a logical extension," Uppal said.

Exactly how the connections will be made is still in the air, as the nascent home-networking market takes shape. Vendors of all sizes are touting various methods -- from simple cables and connectors to complicated systems -- that turn homes into havens for technology-crazed consumers.

While Uppal isn't yet predicting which methods will dominate, she does see a place for both phone line and wireless home-networking technologies. Wireless particularly has a place in the networked home for either part or all of the connectivity, she said.

"Whether it will be the backbone or not, I'm not sure," she said.

It's also too early in the home-networking trend to anticipate which device will be the control centre. Some vendors are pushing products that let users check e-mail while watching TV by linking TVs to PCs that are connected to the Internet. But many users will not be comfortable with that kind of interactivity with their TV, Uppal said.

"The TV has a lot baggage. It hasn't had much interaction in its history," she said. "The PC is something people have always viewed as changing and able to do a lot of things. I think early on people are going to migrate toward the PC (as a home-networking control centre)."

To start, home networks will be primarily used to share printers, files and Internet access, Yankee Group found in the study. The company polled 2,000 families nationwide regarding their use of consumer electronics and telecommunications services for the study.

At the recent Comdex trade show in Las Vegas, as well as at other conferences and shows, home networking was a hot spotlighted trend, with analysts and other industry observers predicting a day when virtually every digital device inside of homes will be connected. That day is in the distant future, Uppal said, but she noted that manufacturers are, for instance, developing microwaves that can access the Internet to find recipes.

Those who want to connect multiple PCs or other devices now probably aren't fussy about the technology that enables them to create home networks.

"Honestly, I don't think a consumer really cares," Uppal said. "What a consumer cares about is: is it easy, is it inexpensive, does it do what I want it to do?"

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