At the Consumer Electronics Show, which starts Saturday in Las Vegas, new products will aim to charge the nascent industry for connecting PCs, printers and other electronic gadgets at home.
Thomson Multimedia, which builds consumer electronics products under the RCA brand, is expected to announce plans to sell networking kits that let people connect PCs using existing power outlets in the home.
Thomson, using technology developed by Novell spinoff Inari, plans next month to introduce home networking kits that allow people to ordinary home electrical networks to share Net access, play video games, and enjoy movies and music in every room.
Thomson will become one of the first companies to release home networking kits using electrical outlets, giving the fledgling technology, called "powerline," a much needed jump start, analysts say. The RCA brand--long known in the world of consumer electronics--could also help adoption.
Powerline technology, which has taken years to develop, has lagged behind other home networking kits that have hit store shelves first, such as wireless and phone-line products. Such technology allows people to link PCs by plugging them into regular phone jacks.
Thomson and other technology companies, including Intel, Motorola, 3Com and IBM spinoff Home Director, are expected to announce and demonstrate new home networking technologies at the technology conference next week.
Home networking is still in its infancy, but analysts expect the market to take off in coming years as more consumers get high-speed Net access and want to link their computers, appliances and electronic devices, such as Web-surfing appliances, together.
Most home networking products today are simple networking kits that allow people to connect multiple PCs so they can share a single Net connection, swap files, and share printers and other peripherals.
"The kits that network PCs together are doing pretty well. People are buying them, so home networking is gaining momentum," said Yankee Group analyst Karuna Uppal.
Ultimately, tech companies envision a future where every electronic device is connected, so people can turn on a stereo in the living room and send music to a PC in another room, while a computer in a bedroom could turn on the oven.
To further that goal, tech companies such as Motorola and start-ups 2Wire and Coactive Networks will demonstrate more complex devices, called residential gateways, that will allow consumers to securely connect electronic devices--such as PCs, appliances and security systems--with their phone service and high-speed Net access. The residential gateways will support wireless, powerline and phone-line home networking standards.
Analysts believe the residential gateways will be sold by service providers, such as cable operators, that want to offer phone services and other new features.
"The residential gateway is the next major step--(that) and new Internet appliances with home networking built into them," Uppal said.
Thomson's new powerline home networking kit, expected in late February, is the first of many products the company plans to release to tap into the home networking market, a Thomson representative said.
It could also be a potential financial boon for Inari, a 60-employee company that spun off from Novell in 1997. Inari, formerly called Intelogis, had previously released a powerline home networking kit and sold it directly to consumers.
"RCA is a huge brand and depending on the price, they could drive huge volume (of sales) for Inari," Uppal said.
Thomson and Inari's technology, however, may not be compatible with technology being created by a consortium of technology companies, which is trying to create an industry standard for powerline home networking.
A consortium of about 60 companies that includes Cisco Systems, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Panasonic and Sharp has been working to create a common way for electronic devices to communicate through the home electrical line. The group, called the HomePlug Powerline Alliance, recently chose a technology by little-known company Intellon as the basis of its standard.
Inari declined to join the standards effort, choosing instead to support similar standards efforts in Europe and join with the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), a group that includes Sony and Thomson.
The HomePlug group expects to make final a powerline standard with data transfer rates of 10 megabits per second (mbps) by March, and the first products using the technology are expected in the summer. Intellon and other powerline networking companies, such as Enikia and Adaptive Networks, will demonstrate their technology at the Consumer Electronics Show.
Thomson, which owns a 5 percent stake in Inari, uses Inari's technology that features data transfer speeds at about 2 mbps. Inari is developing technology that runs at 10 mbps and expects products using the faster speeds to ship by late 2001 or early 2002.
Uppal said Thomson's support of Inari will help the young networking company compete against the HomePlug supporters.
"That's a huge deal for them. They're not a part of HomePlug, and some people wrote them off because of that," she said. "They will be first to market and have a year jump on HomePlug products. And that puts them in good position."
Inari executives believe it's important for the industry to select one powerline home networking standard for the technology to take off--and they expect the industry to eventually settle on one standard. And representatives from HomePlug and the CEA this week said they are in discussions to work on a single standard.
The standards fight is a non-issue right now because no products are yet available, Uppal said. When powerline standards are developed, analysts expect more consumer electronics companies to support the technology in their products.
"Powerline will happen, but it's more of a (late) 2001 or 2002 technology," she said. "The standards issue starts having meaning a year from now when you buy products using powerline and plug them into the wall, and you buy two different ones that are incompatible."
Several other home networking technologies are also expected to be announced at CES:
Intel plans to announce new technology that allows consumers to simultaneously use wireless and phone-line networking kits on the same home network.
Motorola will show off its new wireless cable modem and wireless residential gateway. Start-up 2Wire will also release its wireless residential gateway, allowing laptop users, for example, to roam around the house and stay connected to the Net.
Residential gateway maker Coactive Networks will announce new software and hardware that helps homeowners and businesses better manage energy costs by connecting the home's thermostat and light switches. Homeowners, for example, could turn on their appliances and lights remotely through cell phones or computers at work. The products are being tested by utility companies in the United States, a Coactive representative said.
IBM spinoff Home Director will demonstrate new software packages for its residential gateway. The new software will allow people to create more telephone lines within the home, stream music throughout the house, and view live shots of their home security cameras from any Net-enabled device.