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Home Networks Are in Devices' Future


At the giant Comdex trade show this week, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates showed off some eye-popping video games on his company's new Xbox console.

A day later, Sony Corp. President Kunitake Ando demonstrated what his PlayStation 2 could do--not with games, but with a movie.

The game console acted as a bridge between a personal computer and a television set, wirelessly receiving the movie "Vertical Limit" from the PC and displaying it on the TV.

The battle between the Xbox and the PlayStation 2 will be won or lost on the strength of each device's games, not its gadgetry. Besides, the version of the Sony console sold today doesn't come with wireless networking.

But Ando's demonstration showed where Sony is going with all its consumer-electronics products. "Sony is committed to making all of its devices networkable," Ando said, adding that every TV, music player and other piece of gear the company makes will come with its own network address.

Computer and consumer-electronics companies have been touting the virtues of home networking for several years, but the public hasn't shown much interest. Setting up a network can be excruciating, and there aren't many good reasons to go through the trouble.

Ando argues that even though a network built for computing isn't very compelling, people might be attracted by networks that let them move music, pictures, video and personal information easily from device to device or from any device to the Internet.

Sony announced this year plans to add an Internet connection to the PlayStation 2. At Comdex, the company unveiled a digital camcorder that can connect wirelessly to the Internet, enabling people to e-mail photos or videos straight from the camera without hooking up any wires or turning on a PC.

Available in January for about $2,000, the Network Handycam communicates via Bluetooth, an emerging standard for short-range wireless transmissions. Included with the device is a pint-size Bluetooth base station, which plugs into a phone line.

Bluetooth and a dial-up modem are odd choices for use with a video camera because neither is fast enough to move large amounts of video. Each minute of compressed video consumes about 10 megabytes of space, so a three-minute clip would take more than five minutes to transmit via Bluetooth, and about 1 hour and 40 minutes to upload to the Net.

Sony recognizes that a home network is much more interesting if consumers have persistent high-speed connections to the Internet. Ideally, various devices would all connect at high speed to a home gateway, which would ship data to and from the Net.

The pieces for such a network all exist, but they're not cheap or easy to use. That's one reason Sony has joined forces with AOL Time Warner--a company relentlessly focused on making technology easy to use--to develop a new approach to home networking.

Among other things, the two companies plan to develop a home gateway, create a Web browser for audio-visual gear and apply Internet protocols to data communications within the home. The goal, Ando said, is to come up with an approach that other consumer-electronics companies embrace. He didn't have to say it, but another obvious goal is to have consumers use Sony and AOL's technology, and not Microsoft's.

Bill Raduchel, chief technical officer of AOL Time Warner, said most of the work won't be "inventing stuff" but rather agreeing on how to use existing standards in a way that's brain-dead simple for consumers. In particular, he said, devices need to connect without consumers having to adjust their settings or fiddle with menus--they need to just plug in and work.

Sony has gone down this road before, joining Philips Electronics and other companies in creating a standard for linking audio-visual devices. But that approach--known by the acronym HAVi--didn't integrate the Internet, and it relied on wires to transmit data.

Wireless connections are a simpler proposition for consumers, and Sony plans to introduce products next year built around an emerging high-speed standard. Known as 802.11a, it's fast enough to transmit an MP3 or other compressed digital music file in about a second. That speed also gives it the capacity to transmit multiple streams of video or even a high-definition television signal.

Ando's demonstration, in fact, showed the PlayStation 2 receiving and relaying a high-definition video feed. But Sony hasn't rolled out that feature yet, Ando said, and it's not likely to until more homes buy digital TVs capable of displaying high-definition images.


Jon Healey covers the convergence of entertainment and technology. He can be reached at

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