Will the home LAN save us?

Forget melding the TV and computer into a single device. ZDNet columnist Alice HIll simply wants to connect all her digital devices together and use them in whatever blend she prefers.

COMMENTARY--Let me say up front that the term "home LAN" gives me the willies. It's not that I'm against the concept, but in a nation where the flashing VCR clock speaks volumes about our technical threshold, let's just say I have yet to picture the average home owner driving to Radio Shack for a home networking kit, un-spooling miles of cable, and then patiently configuring the household PCs in an elegant star topology.

Then it hit me. The home LAN was a sham because it was primarily thought of as a solution just for computers. Did anyone really need to go through that king-sized headache just to hook up Junior's PC to the printer downstairs? Of course not.

Times have changed
But now, as more and more devices in our homes go digital, I find myself NOT wanting to meld my TV and computer into a single device as the convergeon-ists (my word) foolishly predicted. I simply want to connect all my devices together and use them in whatever blend I prefer. For instance: I have a digital jukebox in the living room with a nice TiVo-like interface, the ability to search for songs by artist and title and so on, but I can't pull up that information in the neighboring TV room and make use of my hundreds of archived CDs. Instead, I have to dig out the actual CD and load it into the DVD player, which frankly, could use a little work in the music-playing department, or I can pop the CD in the kitchen CD player and stand there.

Sometimes, I long for a way to quickly check my e-mail without firing up my PC. I tried the OmniSky wireless service for a while, but the connection signal in my hilly San Francisco neighborhood was so weak, I could often only get e-mail if I literally stood in the hallway with the device above my head. For those lazy instances, I wouldn't mind checking e-mail on my TV. That doesn't mean I want to do away with my PC or turn my TV into a crude half-wit computer, but why can't I do a quick check of my in-box late on a Sunday night if I don't want to use a PC?

The list goes on and on, but you get the idea.

Awaiting the media server
I was pleased to see that Hewlett Packard is working on the home server as the logical starting point for in-home broadband access. The idea is that a broadband connection enters the house and connects to a home media server tucked away in the garage. The various devices in the home connect to the server either wirelessly or by cable, and the data sifts its way around the network depending on what each device asks for or uses. Beautiful!

If your digital camera can only upload photos, then it won't ever play music, but the uploaded pics will be available to any device in the home that can read photo files. Best of all, the media server can be serviced by an outside company, much like the cable company handles cable boxes now, for those who don't want to swap in more storage or add more RAM. For the do it yourself crowd, I can also see a nice little upgrade industry for the various add-ons and connections this type of network will spawn.

Don't hold your breath on this type of system appearing anytime soon. You can build your own LAN right now and approximate many of the capabilities I discussed, but like most time-depleted consumers, I'm looking for the day when I can have my home LAN installed in a scheduled four-hour window.

Alice Hill was VP of development and editorial director of CNET.com. She regularly writes about technology for ZDNet and Computer Shopper magazine and helps companies abroad build better Web sites. Her favorite topics include Buying Mistakes Beginners Make, Becoming a Virtual Merchant, Why Geeks Love Scooters and Do You TiVo? She welcomes your comments and *e-mails* alice@alicehill.com.