Seattle Convention Center … sunny May days … 900 energetic individuals from around the globe. Another year has gone by and our industry has made some strides forward and a few back. I rely on the Connections conference to bring me up to date on the state of the industry and to reacquaint me with friends and colleagues from various parts of the world. CABA and Parks Associates continue to put on a terrific conference that allows all of the players to “Network” with each other in order to build the Home “Networks” that we all look forward to living with in the future. Here’s a few observations:

Viking Electronics
Residential Gateways
No longer a curiosity item … gateways are proliferating like rabbits. While they all look a little different the functions are pretty well defined at this point in time. Most accept a DSL and/or Ethernet connection to the internet and distribute the connection via wireless, ethernet or HomePNA (HomePlug powerline solutions are being introduced as well). Most have an internal firewall and support various protocols and standards. Some new players are now offering software solutions that reside on this gateway. The software presents an interface to the user allowing control of security and filtering of content. Preliminary versions are focused on filtering to protect children from free reign on the internet. Other features allow the user to build playlists and photo albums for broadcast over the home network. Most tout Open Neutral Platforms … independent of current or future standards or protocols. This is a good thing except that it all adds layers of code that tend to make the gateway start to look like just another PC with a new operating system etc. If that means another journey on the yearly operating system upgrade trail I for one will be extremely disappointed.

Powerline Networks
HomePlug solutions seem to be ready to hit the street now. Gateway devices, powerline network connection devices etc. offer up to 14 Mbps performance over the homes existing powerlines. This will be an interesting realm to follow over the next year as new devices enter the marketplace. I feel that the HomePlug alliance has done a remarkable job to bring this about in less than 1 year.

Wireless Networks
Unfortunately the standards battles are still being waged in this sector. HomeRF vs 802.11. HomeRF demonstrated version 2.0 (10 Mbps networking) and Siemens has tested a phone network using this standard as well. 802.11 devices have been available for some time now (also 10Mbps range). I don’t see a winner emerging here which is unfortunate for all concerned.

PhoneLine Networks
HomePNA was the first home network on the block and continues to be available in gateway devices and PC connections. I just can’t get excited about it because in my opinion it only provides a partial solution (in my home at least). Many rooms in the home don’t have phone outlets but every one has powerline plugs and wireless also covers each room.

Energy Crunch
The energy crisis may provide some impetus to consumers who now feel the need to explore the possibilities of load shedding etc. that can be accomplished with residential gateway technologies. Coactive Networks seem to be on top of this application.

Content … Content … Content
I focused my attention this year to the content side of the equation and unfortunately I still see a large gap between what is possible and what is reality. We seem to have devices hitting the streets now that make the home network a reality. So far however all we can do with it is access the internet from several PC’s in the home and perhaps play and distribute music to various locations in the home. It is still unclear as to who will provide, distribute and make $$$ on content for the home network. The bottleneck at this point is the implementation of broadband connections. Service providers are struggling to keep up with demand and slow to expand services. Hence the market for content has not really developed from the consumer side. But it will … and I expect that the focus will evolve over the next year. What I don’t like to see however is that the Service Providers (Cable and Telephone Companies) appear to have a strangle hold on the content market. This is because they already own the wire to your home and have a method of collecting cash for services. Does this mean we are to be held hostage by the provider that services our neighborhood? The bankers seem to think so and put forth a business model whereby content providers are chosen by and feed through service providers. So much for the openness of internet content if the only entertainment I can get is filtered by the cable company based on royalties and kickbacks. The only thing everyone agrees on is that there needs to be lots more content available before consumers will buy into the concepts. Video on demand, streaming software and music for rent are only a few of the possibilities.

Economic Slowdown?
Yes … the industry if effected negatively by the economic slowdown. Layoffs and business closures are happening. I personally don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. A dose of reality tends to shake out the frail … probably impractical players. I expect we will see a bit of a shakeout over the next year and some consolidation of market share among the stronger companies with real solutions. Alliances and partnerships are common today and that’s what it will take to bring the industry into fruition. Market studies still point to huge growth over the next few years but I feel that the honeymoon is over and it’s time to offer some real value to consumers in order to bring them onboard. Once you experience a broadband connection you can never go back. If ever there was a “hook” to grab consumers and hold their attention … this is it. Let’s hope the cable and telephone companies can get busy and implement the rollout so we can all move forward into the network era.