The Enabling Home Network

In "Home Networking: A Worldly Perspective", I talked about home networking in the modern age. If you're still running 802.11b or, heaven help us all, a 10Mbps wired network, the demands of streaming digital media, multiplayer video games, and Voice over IP (VoIP) phone calls will soon topple your ancient network like the technological tower of cards it is.

What did you say? You're not yet enjoying streaming media, or playing multiplayer games, or making VoIP phone calls?

You will be. Oh, yes. You will be.

I spent the bulk of the aforementioned article discussing the what of home networking, so I thought it might make sense this time around to focus on the why. That is, one doesn't implement technology for technology's sake. As my wife recently reminded me, the Apple MacBook isn't "fun;" it's a tool. Well, she's a Luddite. The MacBook is fun. But it's fun because of what it can do. In a similar way, home networking is interesting because of what it enables. Let's take a look.

Digital Media
If there's a bigger growth market for PCs than digital media right now, I don't know what it is. People are buying digital cameras in record numbers, and they're finally dumping film for good. Even more astonishing, sales of camera-equipped cell phones and smart phones are outstripping both digital and traditional film cameras by a wide margin. Soon, virtually anyone with a cell phone will be able to spontaneously record still and moving images with a tiny device that they're carrying around with them anyway.

People are also moving to digital music in a big way. Although most people are still "ripping," or copying, their CD-based music collections to the PC one at a time, that's the music equivalent of scanning paper photos into the PC—slow and tedious. More and more, people are turning to legitimate music-download services such as iTunes (and illegitimate ones such as those file-sharing networks that no one likes to talk about) to grab new music. The market for digital music generated $400 million last year, but analysts expect it to reach $14 billion by 2011, when it will be the primary source of music purchases.

And what about video? Online video services have yet to catch on in a big way, but many feel they're about to. In "Downloading Hollywood Blockbusters…Legally", I discussed ways to legally download movies legally, and next week Apple is set to begin its own movie rental and purchase service via iTunes. I think we all can agree that Apple is primed to jumpstart this moribund market.

So what are you going to do with all this digital content that you're generating and acquiring? Putting it all on a PC is nice, but sharing it with others over your home network is even better. Applications such as Windows Media Player (WMP) 10 and iTunes make it easy to share digital media content from PC to PC, and devices such as TiVo units and Media Center PCs running Windows XP Media Center Edition can help you view that content in the living room, on your largest TV, and through your best stereo—all controlled with a remote. That's the way to go.

Many have turned to media servers, which are network-attached by nature. But the complexity of these setups and the ever-dwindling price of storage has opened a new opportunity both for hardware makers and digital-media enthusiasts: Network Attached Storage (NAS). Rather than store digital media files on hard disks that are locked inside a specific PC, you can purchase boxes that have one or more hard disks inside and a network interface, and access those files from any PC or any device at any time. NAS used to be expensive, but today prices are far more reasonable. And there's a lot less to manage than with a true media server.

Video Games
So, you say you're not a video game player, huh? Well, that might be changing. Although video games, like comic books, seem to have a strangely adolescent aura about them, the truth is that the video game market already generates more money each year than the movie industry, and the trend is only increasing. Part of the reason video games are more popular than ever is that the market is starting to branch out and attract non-traditional, or casual, gamers such as women and girls, adults, and grandparents. And they're doing it with a variety of game types that go far beyond the first-person shooters, sports titles, and other testosterone-laced games you probably associate with video gaming.

The best example of this movement is Microsoft's Xbox 360 and the Xbox Live service. Sure, Xbox 360 plays some of the most realistic (and, truth be told, most violent) video games ever created. But Microsoft has also legitimatized both casual gaming and online social gaming through its Xbox Live service, which offers cute, addictive Xbox Live Arcade games such as Zuma, Bejeweled 2, Frogger, and Hexic HD, all of which are super-cheap (typically $5), popular with women who don't typically play games, and require you to be online to get them.

How popular is this stuff? In just the first year, Microsoft has pushed more than 50 million downloads—8 million of them Xbox Live Arcade games—via Xbox Live Marketplace, the online store portion of Xbox Live. Over 65 percent of all Xbox 360 consoles play Xbox Live Arcade games. And over 60 percent of all Xbox 360 owners have connected their machines to Xbox Live. Even my wife is addicted to Zuma. And as you might recall, she once referred to the MacBook as a tool. If she can get hooked, anyone can.

Folks, this market is only going to get bigger, thanks to the continued success of the Xbox 360, Sony's late-2006 release of the PlayStation 3, and even existing handheld game machines such as Sony's PlayStation Portable (PSP), which offers wireless networking capabilities for multiplayer gaming (sadly, via obsolete 802.11b technology).

You say you're not sold on the fun stuff? OK, fine. I'm sure we'll get you eventually, but consider the productivity benefits of home networking. Those NAS devices we discussed earlier are just as adept at storing Microsoft Word documents, Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, and other productivity-oriented documents as they are digital-media files, and many of them come with decent backup and recovery software that makes that usually onerous chore quite a bit less painful. With network-based documents, you can get as much work done with a laptop out on the deck as you can from your home office, and let's face it, the view is a lot better.

Finally, there's Voice over IP (VoIP). It's hard to overstate the impact this technology is going to have on the traditional telephone market. By placing phone calls over your broadband connection instead of the copper telephone wire that you typically use, you can save big bucks and make phone calls from anywhere you can get online. Services such as Skype or even Windows Live Messenger, Microsoft's instant messaging (IM) client, make it possible to call traditional phones extremely inexpensively. Consider the Messenger solution: In the United States, users can plug money into a rechargeable Verizon account and call internationally for 1 cent to 3 cents per minute, depending on the destination (Calling France, for example, costs just under 2 cents per minute, whereas calling a mobile phone in Ghana is 1.7 cents per minute).

What's interesting about VoIP is that the quality of the calls depends on the connection you have. You won't want to use VoIP on a dialup connection, but any mainstream broadband solution will work fine. And because virtually everyone using VoIP has a cell phone, you have a backup in the event of a power outage. I strongly believe that the combination of Internet telephony and cell phones is the final nail in the coffin of traditional phone services.

Easier, Cheaper, Faster
Home networking is easier, cheaper, and faster than ever before. Best of all, the sheer number of things you can accomplish through a home network is greater than ever. We've only scratched the surface of what's possible here. But one thing is clear: The advances that home networking enables will only continue to grow.

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