For home PC users dreaming of digital utopia, this year's Comdex promises to be revealing. But first, the bad news: Digital homes will be slow in coming.
"Well, Bill Gates has one," said Gerry Kaufhold, an analyst at technology watcher In-Stat, who estimates there are perhaps a million homes that could be called "wired for multimedia." Companies with the latest products, analysts with their latest estimates, and consumers who just want the best technology will exchange their visions for the digital home at Fall Comdex in Las Vegas.
Home networking will be the centre of a consumer circus at this year's show. "It has been driven by Internet and digital satellite," said Skip Marsh, president and CEO of home multimedia wiring installer Digital Interiors Inc. The 60-employee company installs high-bandwidth wiring and "wiring closets" in new homes.
What are the benefits of a wired home? Marsh has no shortage of examples. "When you leave the house and turn on the security system, your PC can turn off the heat and put the lights on a timer to make it look like someone's home," he said. "When your child comes home and enters their code, the lights will come on and you get paged to know your child made it back safely." For existing houses, two major alternatives -- phone lines and wireless -- are vying to be the way that people shuffle data about their homes. Recently, Diamond Multimedia Systems Inc.released its HomeFree wireless network kit that connects two PCs or more over a 1Mbps wireless network. Several other vendors -- including well-known Tut Systems Inc. -- are using technology that connects PCs over the existing phone lines in a house.
Information appliances will also be scattered across the show. One of the coolest promises to be Diamond Multimedia's Rio PMP300 music player. The Rio is capable of playing compressed music files -- known as MP3 files -- that, until now, could only be player on the PC with a software player. "This device gets the music off the PC," said Bob Kohn, founder and chairman of online music seller GoodNoise Corp. "If you want to go rollerblading this lets you take your music with you." The Rio player's release was delayed by a suit filed by the Recording Industry Associate of America -- the latest round of which Diamond won.
Another major appliance expected to make a strong showing is the Internet phone. One of the first is the iPhone created by InfoGear Technology Corp., which hopes to have iPhones in 10 percent of U.S. homes by the end of 2000. "The potential for Web phones is larger or as large as set-top boxes, because every home that has a TV has a phone," Dennis Tsu, vice president of marketing for InfoGear. While InfoGear is too new a company to have a booth at Comdex, Tsu thought that the product might be shown on the floor.
Unfortunately, very few people will be able to turn their home into a digital wonderland. With products priced for early adopters, only a few will be able to buy into the dream. Yet, while the dividing lines are usually along income and education, geography also plays a major role. For services such as ADSL and data over cable, only certain privileged neighborhoods can get the service. If you look at the places where, for example, ADSL and cable are being rolled out, it looks like dots on the map.
"There's what I call the freckle affect," said Kaufhold. "Those far-flung neighborhoods are the ones on the bleeding edge."