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Wireless Technology Gets More Consumer-Friendly

Computers: Comdex featured a number of companies with innovative home networking systems.

November 20, 1998|ASHLEY DUNN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — The home is the last frontier of computer networking.

Miles of network cables hidden beneath floors or above ceiling tiles have become the norm in office buildings, but the idea of installing another mass of wires to connect PCs in the home has not enchanted most consumers.

In the past year, companies such as Intelogis Inc., Tut Systems Inc. and Epigram Inc. have announced networking systems that solve some of the problems by using a home's existing electrical and telephone wires. But the emergence of a new generation of wireless products aimed at consumers has posed the question: Why use wires at all?

Wireless technology has existed as an exotic part of the network world, sending data through the air, like a radio signal, to connect mobile computers or provide a connection when it is physically impossible to string cables.

But by trading away a little speed, range and intelligence, a group of wireless companies have managed to bring down the stratospheric price of commercial equipment to a relatively consumer-friendly level of about $85 to $150 per computer.

The emergence of wireless networks into the consumer marketplace was marked by the appearance of a healthy crowd of contenders at the Comdex computer trade show in Las Vegas, including such companies as WebGear Inc., Proxim Inc., Diamond Multimedia Systems Inc. and ShareWave Inc.

While the flexibility and ease of wireless networking make it seem like an overwhelming idea, the technology faces several hurdles in establishing itself in the home.

Their current maximum speed of 1 to 1.5 megabytes per second make them much slower than their traditional wired kin, which run at 100 megabytes per second. And in an age when run-of-the-mill cabled network adapters can be picked up at a swap meet for less than the cost of a few Happy Meals, the cost of wireless is still pricey.

Perhaps the biggest problem for home wireless is competing against the phone line networkers, who have positioned themselves as potentially cheaper, faster and easier.

John W. Todd, a research analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities in Los Angeles, said that the ultimate success or failure of wireless networking will depend on how well the wireless companies exploit its advantages in mobility, flexibility and ease.

Home networking is a relatively new idea, emerging only in the past year or two as the number of two-computer homes has grown.

According to a study by Wedbush Morgan, of the 40 million American homes with computers, about 14 million, or 35%, have at least two. The study estimated that the number will double by 2000, making up 61% of all homes with computers.

The first alternative product to hit the market came from San Jose-based WebGear, which began shipping a wireless system in January. The company has sold about 20,000 Aviator wireless kits. The system, which sells for about $90 a unit, has a maximum speed of 1 megabyte per second. The Aviator operates in the 900 megahertz band--a zone that is already used in the home by cordless phones and baby monitors, making it a slightly messier area for data communications.

The second wave of wireless networking devices has just begun to ship this month--with offerings from Proxim, a Mountain View, Calif., maker of commercial wireless equipment, and Diamond Multimedia Systems, well-known for its consumer computer add-ons such as sound and video cards.

Both companies have focused on the 2.4 gigahertz band, a still uncrowded zone that opens the possibility of a little more range and speed than WebGear's system.

Proxim's $150 Symphony home networking device for personal computers and laptops has a range of about 150 feet indoors and a top speed of 1.5 megabytes per second. Proxim also sells a 56-kilobyte-per-second wireless modem.

Diamond Multimedia's $100 HomeFree devices for laptops and desktops have a maximum speed of 1 megabyte per second and a range of about 150 feet indoors.

Both companies promise that prices will fall quickly in 1999, perhaps to $75 per computer.

But even at that price, the wireless adapters still face an uphill price battle against the phone-line network devices.

Tut Systems has adopted the strategy of licensing its designs to companies so they can add phone-line networking capabilities on existing chips. In other words, consumers would be able to buy a combination network card allowing them to use traditional cables or phone lines at no extra cost.

Dennis Morgan, product manager for Diamond's HomeFree system, said wireless will probably never match the price of phone-line networking. Indeed, Diamond is preparing to introduce its own phone-line system next year.

What works to wireless' advantage is a proliferation of portable devices, such as laptops and personal digital assistants, and "smart" digital home devices, such as computer-controlled thermostats and security systems.

This world of smart appliances has been targeted by ShareWave of El Dorado Hills, Calif., with its high-speed wireless system, which the company claims can operate from 4 to 120 megabytes per second in some applications.

ShareWave sees the creation of a "multimedia furnace" in the home based on wireless connections between a myriad of devices.

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