The digital home is still far from reality

Last week I went to New York to see the future of the digital den, and came home to my present-day home a bit disappointed. Hopeful, but still longing for the killer solutions that will make my life easier.

The challenges are numerous: First, the digital home should be all about delivering fantastic entertainment, not about watching how you deploy your computing resources. And unfortunately, right now the computing challenges get in the way of making entertainment any better. Second, home networks are still far too hard to setup, despite new attempts by several vendors to make things easier. The infrastructure for storing and sending music, photos, and videos to different users and different devices is also far from perfect, or even usable by anyone but the most determined techie. Third, wireless is still somewhat witless and confounding to most of us. And while broadband penetration continues to climb, having a constant Internet connection doesn’t make matters easier, more compelling, or any different today for consuming new forms of content.

Let’s look at each of these items one by one, and see where the promise of the new lies and where the challenges of today keep things from moving forward.

First, entertainment should be king, but it isn’t — yet. Both Verizon and Turner Entertainment announced downloadable game services (called Games on Demand and respectively) to enable anyone to play a wide variety of games for various subscription prices of up to $15 a month. While it is nice that major media moguls have set their lasers on the video gaming industry, it is still far from a perfect solution. Neither service is available for non-Windows platforms, and on Gametap they coyly say that Windows machines more than four years old will not be very gamey. Also, the pair of products will require broadband connections to download the necessary huge game executable files.

Some of this has to do with where you put your PC – the living room isn’t the most hospitable place in the digital home, and vendors are trying to make PC cases look more like VCRs and sound less like jet airplanes, and there were some examples at the show from various vendors. But there are still many wires to connect, and many protocols – and products — to ponder and purchase.

Microsoft announced its Xbox 360 will act as a media extender for any Windows Media Center PC, something that will allow the unit to play movies and music to your TV and stereo system more easily. And several vendors, including the usual networking guys, have media extender boxes too. The issue I have with this approach is that I don’t want to store my media files on any client PC and clog up its hard drive. To this end, Iomega announced a file server that can contain your photos and videos available across the home network as well as over the Internet too. All of these products will be available soon.

Second, the home network setup is far from simple. As someone who still does tech support for friends and neighbors’ networks, I can tell you that many of these installations are still very fragile and far from dependable. Wasn’t the latest version of Mac OS, Linux, and Windows XP supposed to making setting up networks easier? Well, they did, but not easy enough and we still have plenty of issues. At the show I saw new products from Pure Network’s Network Magic, McAfee, and Iomega among others that are attempting to remedy this situation. I was impressed with the demo I saw of Network Magic, but will let you know once I actually test it if it delivers the ease of use (and then, only for Windows PCs) that the demo promised.

Third, wireless home networking is another matter entirely: Either you can’t get a good signal throughout your home, or you get too many of your neighbor’s signals unintentionally. Several vendors are working on these solutions, and we should see the fruits of their labors soon. Toshiba and Lenovo are making software to sort out wireless connections more easily on their laptops. McAfee has a software solution to make setting up secure wireless networks easier, and that certainly will be a big improvement. And Netgear, Linksys, Buffalo Technology and others are selling higher-gain and MIMO antenna products to grab stronger signals from their access points and wireless cards.

Finally, broadband choices to the home are about to get more interesting, with powerline technologies finally getting out of trial mode and into paying customers’ hands. The cable and phone monopolies will have some competition from the electric utilities and major ISPs like Earthlink will also offer this service, which will involve nothing more than plugging in a powerline modem into your nearest electric outlet.

Yes, the digital den is coming soon to a home theater near you. But in the meantime, we still have lots to sort out.

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