Home servers: The new data butlers

Your click is their command. As home networking gathers steam, computer makers envision beefed-up PCs at the heart of every home

The next computing revolution may begin at home. PC makers are working to create a new home-computing experience that links networked appliances to server-like PCs with enough bandwidth and storage to deliver messages, music, and movies to every room in the house.

The home network is well-established as a file-sharing medium, but Gateway, has grander plans. The PC maker would like to offer a full range of hardware -- from Internet appliances to beefy PC servers -- plus home-networking services for consumers.

IDC estimates that four percent of US households already use home networking. Roughly 50 percent of households have at least one PC.

Citing an IDC study by senior analyst Schelley Olhava, Gateway estimates that the market will steadily increase to 16.5 percent of households over the next five years.

As home networks and Internet appliances proliferate, manufacturers predict the emergence of a new category of PCs: essentially home servers, they will offer beefy, gigahertz-plus processors, large amounts of memory, and large hard drives that can be expanded by adding multiple drives.

Gateway presented its visions for the networked home at Comdex Fall 2000 earlier this month. New home-networking displays, soon to be installed in the company's Country Stores, depict a networked kitchen, den, and family room that allow users to roam freely as content follows them from room to room.

At the centre of the network is a Gateway PC. It routes a DVD movie to a networked television and shares an Internet connection with a Connected Touch Pad Internet appliance.

Gateway took its first steps down the home-server path on Nov. 9, when it contracted with Broadcom to install its HPNA chipset in its Select and Performance home PCs.

"There's the potential that [the PC] could become the home server," said IDC's Olhava said. "Certainly, it does a good job with what it does. The PC is going to remain very central."

For example, a home server would make sense for a movie-service subscriber who wanted to store large collections of DVD movies on a home system, said Kevin Hell, vice president of Gateway's new Connected Home Division. A movie collection would easily take up most of the storage space on a normal home PC.

Greg Nakagawa, director of Dell's Internet line of business, said beefed-up home servers will take their cues from easy-to-use small-business servers that are already on the market at prices comparable to high-end desktop PCs.

Gateway plans to offer a range of equipment based on the Home Phone Line Networking Alliance standard within the next year. Dell is moving more slowly, so far having announced only one home audio appliance -- its Digital Audio Receiver. But both say home networking consumers haven't seen anything yet.

Olhava said she thinks the PC makers are headed down the right track.

"Right now, [home networking] is very PC-centric," she said. "Five years from now, it is going to be about networking a whole host of devices.

If customers continue to spend money on home networks, as analysts believe they will, Gateway will likely be one of the first to market with such a device.

"People are willing to spend money in order to enhance their entertainment," Olhava said.

Taking home stereo equipment for example, she said. "People spend thousands to have the best."

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