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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 August 2007, 06:41 GMT 07:41 UK
Troubled times for home networks
By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website

Home network, Vismedia
Some people are trying to pipe their media across their home network
There are many technologies that only prove how useful they are when you actually try them.

Take for instance, broadband. The high price may have initially put people off but for those that tried it, and for the millions who have signed up since, the value of that faster, always-on link is apparent every day.

And then there are the technologies that prove how useless they are when you actually try them.

Take for instance, home networking.

Increasing numbers of us have amassed large collections of digital images, music, movies and TV shows. The ability to do more with it, to share it around and show it off, has an obvious appeal.

But, said Van Baker, a research vice-president at analysts Gartner who studies the home networking market, the available technology is not living up to its potential.

"The state of home networking is pretty dismal for the average consumer," Mr Baker told the BBC News website.

The problem, he said, was the sheer complexity of getting all those different devices to work together and swap data via a home network.

While connecting computers with ethernet cables is straightforward, try to do anything clever and obstacles start to appear.

For instance, streaming video across a low-speed wireless network quickly hits bandwidth problems. Upgrade to the current highest speed wi-fi and you will be using kit that is not yet standardised.

"Mention WPA or encryption or SSID or DHCP and you have lost the vast majority of consumers already," he said. "Most of them are not going to deal with that level of complexity and knowledge."

The technical know-how required to set up a network and run music or video across cables or wi-fi, was, he said, "the elephant in the room that no-one wants to talk about."

Network notwork

Gartner tracks public opinion about many different consumer technologies on a graph called the "hype cycle". This describes the journey of these hi-tech toys from the moment they become possible, thanks to a technological breakthrough, through the peak of inflated expectations to the plateau of productivity where they prove their usefulness.

Currently, said Mr Baker, some home network technologies were sitting on the portion of the graph known as the trough of disillusionment because people had found out all the things they could not do with their home network.

Many were being tripped up by digital rights management technology that limits their ability to share digital media around or simpler incompatabilities in file types that stop them being used on another system.

Power plug
Powerline sends data via the same wires that electricity uses
One technology that perhaps might help home users who are concerned about the technical know-how needed to set up a network is Powerline, which runs data across the cable network you already have in your home but which carries electricity.

Powerline network adaptors are modified plugs that sport an ethernet socket that lets you send data from your devices around the home.

Louise Barrett, a spokeswoman for Solwise which distributes Powerline hardware in the UK, said they were proving popular with those who own an Xbox and a PC and want to move their music and other media between the two.

Setting them up, she said, was straightforward and did not require fiddling with ID numbers and other settings that wi-fi networks sometimes demand.

"They are great if you have a 16th Century cottage in the back of beyond where the walls do not let the wireless signal through," said Ms Barrett.

She added that data travelling across electricity cables can be slowed down by what else you have plugged in. But, she said, users would not notice much difference on the faster networks (up to 200 megabits per second) that Powerline supports.

Wi-fi world

One home networking technology that has come through the trough of disillusionment to the slope of enlightenment is wi-fi.

Selina Lo, chief executive of Ruckus Wireless, said wi-fi's popularity proved how straight-forward it was to use.

"We've gone way beyond the tech adopters," she said.

Wi-fi in cafe, AFP
Many people have got used to using wi-fi on the move
That wide usage would not have come about without it being straightforward to use, she added.

"There are signs that wi-fi is becoming a utility," she said. "People want to login and have it behave the same every time. They just want it to work."

Increasingly, said Ms Lo, Ruckus was talking to network firms and service providers about using wi-fi in homes because people have got used to the freedom it gives them to move their computer around the home.

More and more people were also getting used to using wi-fi when they were out and about, said Ms Lo.

"Wi-fi will become a ubiquitous technology," she concluded.

Just how popular it has become can be shown by the sheer number of firms that make and sell home wi-fi hardware. Companies such as Netgear, Linksys, Belkin, 3Com and D-Link all sell these types of kit.

Mr Baker from Gartner was not so sure. In Europe, he said, Powerline technology might make more sense in homes not least because cable TV firms were already investigating using it to provide multi-room TV.

For the moment though, he said, many consumers would probably continue to struggle with home networks.

"What we need is a home networking technology that extends the home electronics value proposition in which we go to the store, look at the products, decide what we want, bring it home, plug it in and it works."

"We are quite a way aways from getting that to happen," he said.

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