In 2001, just 1.8 percent of households had an Internet-attached handheld device, according to a report issued that year by the NTIA. By the time Ipsos conducted its 2005 Face of the Web survey, 26 percent of Americans had surfed the web on a wireless device. Fast-forward to 2007, when it could be done using both the Sony PSP and Nintendo Wii, along with a host of other gadgets. And the introduction of ultramobile PCs means even more Internet-capable machines per person. We’ve come a long way from the days of shared computing.
Our multiple-machine home life has snuck up on us. And it’s a consumer trend that has spawned many new products, and highly publicized launches, at this year’s CES.
Belkin, which got its start in cabling, introduced a keyboard/video/mouse (KVM) switcher aimed at the small office/home office market. Traditionally the domain of data centers and enterprise IT, KVMs may now have a place in the home. With computer prices falling, high-end displays, keyboards and mice are an increasingly large part of a computer’s price tag. KVMs let people use a single set of interfaces across multiple physical computers, so they’re really about amortizing the cost of expensive interfaces across many machines.
Rather than using plugged-in KVM switches, however, many vendors expect consumers to stream media to a big-screen TV or home stereo system. Deloitte’s 2008 State of the Media Democracy survey shows that 58 percent of respondents want to share Internet and personal PC content with their home TV. Logitech, Cisco, D-Link and others have all launched or invested in this approach.
The rapid adoption of notebooks as the preferred home machine may also shorten the lifespan of KVMs; after all, home users are increasingly buying notebooks, and those notebooks come with their own keyboard, video and mouse.
While notebook computers were once the domain of coast-to-coast road warriors, today they’re as likely to be bought for residential use. In November 2006, the notebook hit a tipping point: Of the consumers Belkin surveyed, more said they never took their notebook out of their house than said they did. Belkin’s Jamie Elgie calls these buyers, who want to compute on the couch and view recipes in the kitchen, “zen home” users. Unexpectedly, however, Belkin’s studies also showed that rather than replacing a home desktop with a notebook upgrade, roughly 60 percent of consumers were keeping their old machines and using them as servers.
Microsoft is hoping to capitalize on this trend with the introduction of the Windows Home Server. Based on Windows Server 2003, the new product offers a greatly simplified version of server administration. It allows a relatively non-technical user to manage storage, permissions and backups, and works with up to 10 Windows machines.
Will the home server catch on? In enterprises, servers are a fact of life. They perform centralized processing and run large-scale applications, as well as handling messaging, backups and so on. But for most homes, a server handles two main functions: file storage and peripheral sharing. Both of these functions have compelling alternatives for consumers that mean servers aren’t as necessary. And notably:
- File storage is built into most popular operating systems, and in-the-cloud storage services aimed at consumers, such as box.net and xdrive, are springing up all over the Net.
- With the cost of built-in networking so low, peripherals like printers and scanners connect directly to the network, so the value of a server to share printers is diminished substantially.
It’s also unclear whether consumers will pay a Windows license for storage and peripheral services that can easily be powered by a free, open-source operating system.
Another enterprise trend that may find its way home, with a twist, is the virtual machine (VM). Companies like VMWare and Citrix Xen make software that lets one computer look like many — or many computers look like one. In the enterprise environment, where processing and applications run on servers, VMs are a great way to scale capacity and quickly provision new machines.
In the home, where content is what matters, a full-blown VM may be too much. Instead, consumers may adopt solutions that merge the media from all of their machines and distribute it within their homes or across the Internet. We’re already seeing the start of this trend, with companies like Avvenu (which Nokia recently agreed to acquire) and SoonR (which just closed an investment round led by Cisco) putting software on home machines that makes content available elsewhere.
There is still a great deal of uncertainty about how consumers will deal with the profusion of computers, and the content they contain. One thing is certain: There are lots of home computing bets being made in Vegas this year.
(Full disclosure: Alistair Croll has a consulting relationship with WeBot, a distributed media platform, which makes remote media access tools for consumers.)