With the price of PCs falling at the same time the advantages for consumers to being connected – online investing and shopping, keeping in touch with long-distance friends and relatives, enjoying multiplayer games and tapping the vast resources of the Internet – continued to multiply, it was no surprise that by the late 1990s computer networking was being propelled from its traditional corporate base into a brave new world – the home.
However, with an increasing number of households owning two or more PCs – forecasts predicted that more than 30 million North American households would own two or more computers by the end of 2002 – they found themselves experiencing the same limitations that confronted businesses almost 20 years earlier: the inability to share computing and peripheral resources or to share information easily between computer users.
The four most compelling home network market drivers are:
- Simultaneous high-speed Internet access using a single ISP account: As the Internet becomes an essential tool in business, education, medicine and government, as well as our personal lives, the demand for high-speed, convenient, easily accessible Internet access is mushrooming. Cable, ISDN, and digital subscriber line (DSL) modems provide the fastest Internet connections and allow family members to talk on the phone and use the Internet simultaneously.
- Peripheral sharing: Families want to get the most out of their computer equipment investments by sharing the same printers, modems, or other peripherals from any PC in the home.
- Sharing files and applications: Families also want to maximise the value of their software investments by sharing applications, and they want the convenience of sharing files easily, without having to transfer from machine to machine via floppies or CDs.
- Entertainment: The new wave of multiplayer computer games, with their advanced graphics and exciting audio tracks, are beginning to grab consumer interest. Many analysts believe that PC games and entertainment software represent the swiftest long-term growth segment of the overall U.S. electronic gaming marketplace, with a combined unit annual growth rate of 24% being predicted between 1997 and 2002. The two biggest growth factors are the continuing price drop in home PCs and the opportunity for multiplayer gaming.
The solution for home users in the late 1990s is the same as it had been for corporate users more than a decade earlier: networking.
While consumer demand has swelled, recent advances have overcome the technological and complexity barriers that once prevented networking from migrating into nontechnical environments. Component prices have dropped, available network speeds have accelerated, and signal attenuation and noise problems have been addressed using low-cost, high-performance signal processing. However, success in the consumer market requires that home networks be inexpensive, easy to install and easy to use. Essentially, that means the technology must be transparent to the user.
By the early 2000s, home networking technologies had made significant progress towards meeting these requirements, providing consumers with an impressive array of options. The wired network technologies use some form of physical cabling to connect computing devices, the choice being between Ethernet, phoneline and powerline. Wireless networks, on the other hand, use electromagnetic airwaves – infrared or radio – to transmit information from one point to another.