The Digit weekend news team sometimes wish they could live a normal weekender life - or even live in 3Com's new digital house. Imagine 20 Web cams, enough bandwidth and cables to wire a small town, and a smorgasbord of digital gadgets all jammed into one swank two-story London apartment. It could pass as Bill Gates' New York bungalow, but it's not. This digital home is 3Com's vision of the connected life.
On display off-site during the PC Expo in the US, 3Com's digital home wires everything. Each computer seamlessly talks to printers and fax machines, and effortlessly roams the Internet. Entertainment devices such as a NetTV and Internet radio are networked so you can easily download movies or music and pipe it to any room. The house senses your presence, its cameras following your every move so that anyone watching the network can see what you're doing. Even the telephone is patched into the home network, allowing you to forward calls to any phone or paging device.
This is not a vision of the farcical future. If you've got the money, the bandwidth service, and the patience to set up the network, you could be living the 3Com connected life.
However, here's the reality check: when it comes down to it, few people besides tech hobbyists and the Digit weekend news team want to spend their weekends untangling wires and programming network gear designed for small businesses and office buildings. Tech support needs deter most people from wanting to actually live in a digital home.
But attitudes are changing. Cahners In-Stat Group predicts a 105 per cent growth in home networks sold to consumers, who will buy more than 6.4 million units by the end of 2000. And 3Com and others want a piece of the action.
3Com is pushing ahead with home-networking technologies that it says are designed to be simple, practical, and inexpensive. The company has a slew of products available today, as do competitors like Intel, Diamond Multimedia, and Lucent Technologies.
3Com's Digital Home strategy is based on four components and dozens of products. The networking building blocks are the tools to move data over the network, entertainment systems, telephone links to the network, and home automation.
First and foremost is the network itself, through which all data travels. Products like 3Com's recently announced £150 Home Gateway package let your various devices share a broadband connection, enable computers and digital devices to communicate with each other, and provide a basic firewall to prevent hackers from busting into your digital home.
3Com offers three flavors of networks: It has networks based on standard telephone lines, Ethernet networks, and wireless networking products. All three systems have pros and cons, and are best suited for certain needs.
But 3Com is focusing on giving you better reasons to network your home than for simple printer-sharing. On Tuesday, the company bought Internet radio firm Kerbango for £55 million. The Internet radio device looks like a radio but tunes in to audio from the Internet and can also play MP3 digital music files. Kerbango has access to about 5,000 Net-based stations and can be hooked up to your home stereo. 3Com expects to release it this fall, priced at about £180.
3Com is also working with the set-top box company NetTV, which makes a device (called a NetTV) that allows you to surf the Web on your TV set. 3Com says it will bundle its latest cable and ADSL high-speed modems with the NetTVs to get people watching broadband video content on their existing boob tubes.
Later this year, 3Com expects to market its own Internet appliance. The unit will offer simple access to the Web and communication tools like real-time messaging and email.
Telephony services are also a big part of 3Com's network push. It currently sells an Internet protocol phone that works primarily on office computer networks, but could find its way into the home. Someday, consumers will want to marry their telephones to computer networks, 3Com suggests. This would enable you to have multiple phone lines in one house without paying the phone company a penny. Also, once your phone can talk to your home network, you can route phone messages to email by managing your phone system from a PC.
Lastly, once you're wired to the hilt you'll be able to relinquish all household control to a simple network management tool. Upcoming home automation tools will let you monitor and control your digital life from anywhere in the world by sending commands via the Internet. Someday soon you'll be able to cook dinner, program your meal-time music, send instant messages to tell the kids that dinner is ready, and set the burglar alarm on your vacation home - all before you sit down to eat.
So now all Digit creatives can seamless work, live and play in a massive extended studio that includes their bathroom, kitchen and living room. And you thought weekends were for relaxing.