Home office highlights from CES

Telework, home office and home network developments from the Consumer Electronics Show.

It wouldn't be January without our annual trek to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show. Four days of floor walking gave my colleague Keith Shaw and me lots of news for mobile and remote workers - and plenty of home network and entertainment developments. Here are some highlights. For new product details and Keith's coverage, see this week's Cool Tools.

• New mobile worker pilot. The Internet Home Alliance (IHA) - the group charged with determining what we want emerging technology to do and what we'll buy - announced its Mobile Worker pilot. Billed as a "real-world trial of the ideal working environment for mobile workers," the group is creating essentially a drop-in telework center - a 2,400-square-foot workspace in a mall in Plano, Texas. Set to launch in April, the pilot comes out of the IHA's "U.S. Mobile & Remote Worker Study," released last July, which surveyed 842 mobile and remote workers in three U.S. cities.

Tim Woods, IHA's vice president of ecosystems development, says the group chose to study the "café culture," because the research found mobile and remote workers want to work around people, not in isolation. While Starbucks and the like provide the energy and creative environment respondents want, the furniture is inappropriate and the technology limited. So the Plano center will have upscale ergonomic furniture from Herman Miller, high-speed Internet access and office services, all free.

Woods also shared the results of the IHA's upcoming research report, the "State of the Connected Home Market 2003." It found that 57% of 1,919 single-family, owner-occupied U.S. households surveyed have Internet access; 18% of those have broadband. By midyear, the IHA expects that number to jump to 26%. Twelve percent have a home network; 16% will by midyear. The study found the greatest barrier to home network adoption was "a perceived lack of need or interest."

• Power-line network news. The HomePlug Powerline Alliance showed competing entries for its HomePlug AV specification, which will provide near-100M bit/sec speeds and quality of service (QoS) for streaming multiple videostreams (including HDTV), audio and data throughout the home over existing power lines. HomePlug 1.0 has a rated speed of 14M bit/sec; actual throughput is about half that.

There are three technologies vying: a combined effort from Conexant, Panasonic and Sharp; and one each from Intellon and DS2. The winner should be chosen in a few weeks, according to Peter Kempf, president of the Alliance and a vice president at Conexant. Vendors should see silicon by next year's CES, Kempf says, followed by products from small office/home office hardware vendors such as Linksys and Netgear, and from consumer electronics vendors six to nine months later. Expect HomePlug AV to be built into HDTVs, LCD panels, DVD players, media adapters and the like.

The HomePlug market slowed in 2003 when Siemens/Efficient pulled its gear from store shelves. At the show, Linksys said it sold very few HomePlug products last year, but Netgear said it sells 1,500 units per week. But Asoka USA announced new products, and Kempf says D-Link Systems and Belkin are gearing up to sell products.

Phonex Broadband showed Readywire, proprietary power-line technology built for audio. Readywire gets 600K to 800K bit/sec data rates, which is adequate for streaming MP3 files. Brad Warnock, Phonex's vice president of business development, says Readywire will be built into stereos, speakers and VoIP handsets later this year. (The company's Neverwire products use HomePlug.) The company is working on a version that gets 1.5M bit/sec, the throughput required for streaming CD audio.

• Coaxial cable network play Rather than stream multimedia over wired Ethernet, HomePlug AV, 802.11g/a or HomePNA, Entropic wants to stream it over your home's existing coaxial cabling. The San Diego start-up has $46 million in funding and is backed by Cisco, Comcast, Intel, Motorola, Panasonic and TimeWarner. Entropic's c.Link-270 chip technology allows for two-way traffic between devices at speeds of up to 270M bit/sec. Patrick Henry, Entropic's president and CEO, demonstrated c.Link streaming multiple movies between devices and simultaneous online gaming.

Entropic also launched a new standards organization - the Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) - whose goal is to make Entropic's technology an industry standard. "If we waited for the IEEE, it'd take three years," Henry says. Production silicon will be ready by March, Henry said, and upon the completion of field trials by Entropic and MoCA, c.Link adapters and bridges could be available from SOHO network vendors by September. A pair of adapters will cost about $150 initially, dropping to $99, and eventually HomePlug-to-C.LINK bridge products will be released. c.Link will include drivers for Linux and Windows XP, but not for Apple. The first chips will stream IP data only; subsequent versions will add MPEG3 support.

• Wireless entertainment networks debate. At a panel session called "Wireless Entertainment Networking: Requirements and Reality," sponsored by research firm Parks Associates, the group debated whether today's wireless was good enough for streaming video and what improvements 2004 would bring. Netgear's Vivek Patela said that today's wireless isn't up to snuff. Shawn Saleem of VixS Systems said his company's product streams video perfectly today (using proprietary technology). This prompted the Wi-Fi Alliance's Brian Grimm to remind everyone the importance of standards and interoperability and to tout the upcoming 802.11e specification (for QoS) and 802.11n (which eventually will provide 100M bit/sec speeds). Atheros' Colin MacNab repeatedly plugged 802.11a, and Grimm acknowledged that 802.11a is better than 802.11g for videostreaming (because 802.11g's 2.4-GHz band is crowded, and it has only three channels).

Even though wireless entertainment networks need a lot of fine-tuning, the lure of streaming video to an LCD panel on the living room wall kept us hanging on every word.

• Shell Oil home control service. With an eye on energy conservation, Shell Oil is getting into home automation and network services. In April, Shell is set to launch a service to monitor and control household systems such as thermostats, lights and some home appliances via Web browser or cell phone. Shell uses hardware and software from Motorola Broadband, Sun and Xanboo. The Motorola Residential Gateway also will allow for standard home networking, the company says.

The cost of the Starter Kit is $800, which includes the wireless gateway, RF module, programmable thermostat, power switch and wireless camera. The monthly service fee is $25.  That's pricey, so I asked the Shell representative why he thinks people will buy it.

"Peace of mind," he answered. When I pressed for more specifics, he said, "A lot of people want it so they can catch the dog jumping up on the couch."

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.