What if Wireless Home Networking Doesn’t Happen?

Every now and then I try to step back from position as a technophile and dissect an area where I feel particularly passionate. I am certainly hoping that wireless home networking comes to pass in the very near future, but I can construct a case in my head as to 1) why it doesn’t happen at all or 2) why it doesn’t happen as quickly as I would like.

The logic driving the belief that wireless home networking is right over the horizon is as follows (in my opinion):

1. Home users are installing WLANs en masse
2. Home WLANs have proven fairly easy to manage
3. Home users want to share content among the various consumer eletctronics in their house
4. Home users will adopt wireless home entertainment networks to solve the problem

Let’s dissect this a bit.

Building Blocks for Wireless Home Networking

Device Adapters – I have not seen many televisions (with the exception of some very high-end plasma models), receivers, set-top boxes, or DVD players that ship today with integrated support for wireless communication of any sort, save IR. If my existing (or planned) consumer electronics equipment is to participate in this home entertainment network, it will need some kind of adapter (wired or wireless) to connect it to the network. These adapters, of course, will only be the first step toward manufacturing consumer electronics products with integrated support for wireless communications.

Networking Support – Setting up a WLAN with an access point and a handful of computers is pretty easy because modern computers were designed to be networked. I don’t know that any of my existing consumer electronics products were built to be networked. Someone is going to have to provide me with an interface or software tool to set up and manage this network. It doesn’t have to be sophisticated, but it does have to help the novice to intermediate user get all of his/her devices to participate in the network.

How do We Get to Home Networking Nirvana?

Nirvana: Vendor and Device Independent Home Networking
Most industry analysts have been writing about what I will call the “nirvana” scenario — a world where every major consumer electronics device supports a single (or at least common) wireless protocol and can be networked together easily. We are clearly not there yet. I am not even sure that is how things will actually pan out. If we do eventually get there, I believe that there will be an intermediate phase that happens first.

Phase I: Vendor-Specific Networking Solutions – I think that products such as Sony’s RoomLink will be the first foray into home networking. The San Jose Mercury News wrote an article describing the shortcomings of the RoomLink product, with a particular focus on the Sony-centric nature of the product. My guess is that there will be products from other vendors such as Motorola, Intel, Panasonic, and others that will have similar flavor — they will be tuned toward supporting a particular vendor or collection of vendors to the exclusion of others. This is an appealing go to market strategy, however, as it solves the seemingly intractable problem of deciding on a common networking air interface (UWB, 802.11a/b/g, etc.) for the entire CE industry. Also, it promotes vendor lock-in to some degree — if I can only network Sony products via RoomLink, chances are that I will take a hard look at Sony products before choosing another vendor.

There are three other reasons why this market might not emerge:

1. Users pull wires – Although it sounds like heresy to most technophiles, people might decide that it is easier to pull wires or co-locate a PC near their home entertainment center than it is to try to manage a wireless network of consumer electronics devices. If you connected your PC to your televesion and ran stereo cable to your home theater, you would have a very clunky way in which to access content from your “media PC” or other entertainment hub.

2. Users don’t actually want/need to share content among devices – What happens if users just decide that there is no reason to share all of this content among devices? What if people decide that they only want to view the content that they saved on their PVR on the TV to which it is attached? What if they decide that the speakers on their PC are good enough and there is value in streaming their MP3s to other audio devices in the home?

3. Conflicting wireless protocols – At any point in time, the relative fortunes of the major local wireless protocols (802.11 a/b/g, UWB, Zigbee, Bluetooth) are in a constant state of flux. Consequently, when device manufacturers sit down to design CE products with wireless connectivity, each manufacturer/OEM will have to decide which flavor of wireless to implement. Should there be a schism here, with each OEM choosing its own wireless protocol, interoperability would be greatly hindered.

As a consumer I hope that wireless home networking comes to pass.

****Shortly after I posted this article, someone pointed me to the Prismiq (http://www.prismiq.com/products/index.asp) — if anyone has hands-on experience with this device, please let me know.