Observations on this year\u2019s Connections 2003 conferenceThe mood at this year\u2019s Connections 2003 Digital Home Conference and Showcase in San Jose fluctuated between hope, crankiness and despair. Rousing presentations from Intel, Microsoft and Philips painted glorious visions of the digital home of the future \u2014 the market these 550 or so vendor attendees are betting their banks on. There was even a presentation by MIT\u2019s Media Labs featuring attentive appliances, intelligent windshields and conductive cosmetics.\u00a0No one would argue the vision is a mirage, would they? Broadband adoption keeps climbing; consumers are stuffing their hard disks full of digital media; 30% of U.S. households have two PCs; 10.5% have networked them, likely with cheap and easy to use Wi-Fi. New game consoles include Ethernet and wireless, Media PCs are hot, HDTV is around the corner, and sales of Tivo and Replay TV personal video recorders are picking up. The stage is set to start bringing everything together \u2014 right?Yes and no. While the technology is here \u2014 oodles of architectures, infrastructures, protocols and standards \u2014 no one can agree how it should all fit together. And without agreement, there\u2019s no clear message to bring to consumers, retailers or service providers.Connections is hosted by Dallas boutique research firm Parks Associates, which focuses exclusively on home networking, in conjunction with the Consumer Electronics Association. In her opening remarks, President Trisha Parks summed up the problem best: \u201cDistribution is the linchpin. Without it, we\u2019re all wearing a bunch of suits without zippers.\u201dBut what are we distributing, exactly? There was agreement the digital home architecture will center around a smart device that will store, manage and distribute the home\u2019s digital media to a variety of dumber, cheaper devices throughout the home, over one or many network protocols such as Ethernet, coax cable, power line or wireless. Not a new idea, but a seemingly stable one.Microsoft says the smart box will be a PC. Motorola says it\u2019ll be a cable set top box. Many say the argument is foolish; there\u2019s room enough in the boat for everyone. There was squabbling over what services consumers will pay for, a sore spot because providers have been so slow to partner up. Some argued they\u2019ll only pay for entertainment and a fatter pipe for gaming, and the service provider will need to offer free antivirus and firewall services to differentiate their offerings. Others are dead sure consumers will pay for content filtering and parental controls. Even so, that\u2019s a small part of the overall market, someone pointed out.All agreed entertainment would be \u201cthe next big wave.\u201d But no amount of debate was going to ease the sense that a lack of standards, as well as digital rights management and copyright protection issues, are holding back an already ailing young market.Hence dramatic moments like when Jeremy Toeman, products and services vice president at Mediabolic \u2014 a company that makes embedded middleware for entertainment devices \u2014 burst out during a panel discussion: \u201cWe don\u2019t have home networks today. We have IP networks that connect PCs and DSL modems, and maybe a printer!\u201dOr when Parks, in an effort to infuse some positive energy, asked a panel: \u201cSo what\u2019s happened that\u2019s started that\u2019s good?\u201d and was received with dead silence. Finally, Comcast Senior Vice President Steve Craddock offered, \u201cWireless is much easier to install than it was two years ago.\u201dAnd I hear a fist fight nearly broke out among some vendors on a wireless panel, but I missed it, hoping to learn something new from a talk on \u201cwhole home distribution strategies\u201d instead. Bad call.There were a couple of funny moments too, like when Bruce Mehlman, the Commerce Department\u2019s assistant secretary for technology policy, said, \u201cEverybody in Washington loves broadband, but only half know what it is.\u201d Or when I met a vendor who works for home network systems integrator IONA Home Systems. \u201cOur name is a bit of a joke,\u201d he said. \u201cWhen you buy from us, you can say \u2018IONA home network.\u2019 \u201dNear the end of the third day everyone looked pretty sore from all the head banging. None of these entrepreneurs could figure out how to dominate the market, which meant Microsoft and Intel would do it for them. The time had come for the most useful panel presented: Three venture capitalists set to impart the secrets of getting funding. The room was packed.Don\u2019t get me wrong; there\u2019s still a lot going on in this market, even if there isn\u2019t a lot of money being made. There are interesting developments with network protocols like Zigbee and WiMEDIA, some power line developments from ITRAN Communications and the reborn nSine Communications, and new technologies from Entropic (100-200M bit\/sec over coax) and even Gibson \u2014 the guitar people whose tagline is \u201cWatch for flying panties.\u201d Ah, there\u2019s hope yet. Stay tuned.