Last week’s news about Netgear’s new streaming media box for Internet video to the TV has me reflecting on the state of the home network. It seems like only yesterday that we in the tech industry started talking about the vision of the digital home, an almost mythical place where one day consumers could connect any device to another over the home network seamlessly to send content to and fro.
In a lot of ways, we’ve inched closer to that vision. Wi-Fi home networks are no longer the sole domain of the tech-savvy, while more and more non-PC devices — be they game consoles or iPod touches — are connecting to the network. But while the home network has, in fact, evolved, we’re not anywhere near that utopian vision of the digital home. As any of us who have a home network can attest, half the time it feels like it’s hanging together with Band-Aids and silly putty, a temperamental creation in which devices can’t connect, the router needs rebooting, and if we’re lucky enough to make video streaming from the PC to the TV work, chances are it won’t tomorrow. In short, for all the advances of the home network, the transition to the full-fledged, seamlessly connected media network remains a distant vision.
So what’s the deal? Why is the reality of the digital home so hard to achieve? Here are four reasons why home network nirvana remains so elusive:
Too Many Standards
For every UPnP, MoCA and DLNA, there’s a Jini, Havi or CableHome. In the past 10 years, I’ve probably been briefed on 100 different standards for the digital home, most of which didn’t make it or are on life support. Some which seem necessary — like the RVU Alliance — never get mentioned, while others, such as Wireless HD, get lots of attention but never seem to actually reach the homes of anyone you or I know.
We Live in a Multi-Vendor, Multi-Device World
One of the easiest ways to get on a home network is to simply buy all Apple products. From connecting an Airport to hitting the Airtunes button on your Mac, it’s almost incredible how Apple makes it easy. But the reality is we live in a multi-vendor world, and as easy as an all OS X world is, it’s not the reality. Device and vendor diversity have made achieving the home network vision difficult.
Fast Starts and Disillusionment
If there have been 100 standards for home networks, there have been 1,000 startups and product launches that have been abandoned in the digital home. Whether it’s home automation giant AMX going through a midlife crisis in 2000 and changing its name to Panja (and back to AMX a year later), or Intel and its much-maligned Viiv push, most companies’ rocket-launched digital home pushes flame out in disillusionment. These efforts, followed by abandonment by big players, create confusion among the consumer.
No Dominant Device
Other than the gateway, no device has become a dominant fixture in the home network. While the industry has attempted to launch entirely new device categories in digital media adapters and media servers, the consumer has so far said no to these. What is happening instead is existing devices are evolving — slowly — to become a part of the home network.
Not all news is bad on the digital home front. Even as traditional home network product sales may be slowing, new managed home networks are being installed as service platforms; companies like Vizio are giving us innovative spins on existing product categories; and market leaders such as Apple are making the mobile device an important part of the network.
So while the digital home of tomorrow is slow in coming, it is, in fact, coming — it just may take another thousand company initiatives to get here.