Networking the Home May Be Less Daunting

Times Staff Writer

Every year, electronics manufacturers trot out new gadgets they hope will entice consumers to plug the Internet into their home entertainment centers.

Every year, consumers yawn.

Now, the consumer electronics industry is betting that simpler and cheaper devices will, finally, resonate with buyers.

On display this week at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is a new, lower-priced generation of products that can bring music, pictures and movies stored on a computer or Web site to the home-entertainment gear that consumers already own, including TVs, sound systems and even car stereos.

These products leverage new technologies that let devices find and share with one another digital audio and video without having to be programmed laboriously or wired together.

In the past, manufacturers "wanted to create these solutions that they thought did everything, and they failed. They didn't work the way consumers thought they should, and some of them were really expensive," said Dave Chan, a marketing manager at chip giant Intel Corp., which has designed a sub-$200 adapter that connects a stereo and TV wirelessly to a PC.

Botched efforts over the last five years range from "Internet appliances" with built-in screens for Web browsing to "media servers" that could deliver hundreds of digital songs or movies to any room in the house.

The lingering problem: Most consumers don't have a home network to connect everything together, and they haven't shown much interest in setting one up.

That may be changing, however.

A recent survey by Parks Associates, a research firm that specializes in home networking, found that half of the consumers with Internet access at home were interested in connecting their computers to their stereos and TV sets.

The results reflect the growing role computers are playing in acquiring, organizing and storing digitized music, pictures and videos, particularly among young adults.

Meanwhile, the number of homes installing networks is rising in tandem with the spread of high-speed, always-on Internet connections. About half of the households with high-speed Internet services have home networks, the Parks survey found.

These trends have prompted a wide range of manufacturers to start developing products that, when plugged into a home network, automatically find the digital audio or video stored on any other device connected to the network. Then they feed those songs or images to a nearby stereo or TV set.

Skeptics such as Terry Leeder, a sales and marketing executive for microchip maker Cirrus Logic Inc., say most consumers won't go to the trouble of setting up a network to move music and images from the PC to their home entertainment center.

Instead, he said, they'll simply record the songs or photos onto a CD and walk them over to a player in their living room.

Nonetheless, manufacturers think there's a market. Examples include digital media receivers from Philips Electronics, Palo Alto-based Hewlett-Packard Co. and Rockford Fosgate. Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sonicblue Inc. plans a network-equipped DVD player, and San Jose-based TiVo Inc. is making a digital video recorder that can connect to PCs or Macs.

Most of these units sell for $200 to $250.

By contrast, HP tried to sell a $1,000 "digital entertainment center" two years ago that could download music and video, store thousands of songs internally and record discs on a built-in CD burner. The product was a bust.

The experience taught HP that consumers don't want to add music storage and CD burning to their home entertainment centers -- they're already doing those things on their computers, said spokesman David Albritton.

The company soon plans to sell a $200 device that can stream music from a PC to a stereo through a home network.

Likewise TiVo, which makes video recorders that use hard drives instead of videotape, flirted last year with a version that could copy the music from CDs and download videos as well as store TV programs. But Chief Executive Mike Ramsey said the approach was "really too much for people, and they couldn't see the benefit of going to all that hassle."

So TiVo switched gears, developing new software that adds networking capability to the recorders it introduced last year. With this software, TiVo boxes will be able to take advantage of the digital music and photos already collected on a home PC.

Tests with TiVo users generated a "phenomenally positive response," Ramsey said. "The key, though, is it has to be phenomenally easy."

Other consumer-electronics companies, including Pioneer Electronics Inc., are still planning more expensive devices that would serve as a digital hub for home entertainment.

Saying that computers aren't capable of delivering the audio and video quality that consumers demand, Craig McManis, a marketing executive at Pioneer concluded, "That's why the consumer-electronics industry has to lead the development of the home entertainment network."

Computer and software companies have been prodding gadget makers for several years to embrace networking.

In a speech at the Consumer Electronics Show on Wednesday, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates showed off the latest crop of "smart" devices that can communicate with other gadgets and the Internet -- from an exercise bike and a sewing machine to mobile phones, pocket-size video players and watches.

Still, even Microsoft officials say that the consumer-electronics industry hasn't necessarily found a way to sell networking to the public.

"I do think the manufacturers continue to search for the right mixture" of cool features and basic functions in a device, said Microsoft's Steve Guggenheimer, senior director of business strategy.

Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Planetweb is looking for that perfect combination. The company was founded in 1996 to sell software that enabled DVD players and other consumer-electronics devices to connect to the Internet. A few years ago, Planetweb changed course sharply, focusing instead on enabling DVD players to read discs with digital photographs and other media.

Although consumer-electronics companies still are exploring ways to connect their products to the Internet, co-founder Ken Soohoo said, those efforts are really aimed at future gadgets. It's hard to justify the cost today of adding a network connection to devices.

"They have to be able to compete with the guys who are really reducing prices," Soohoo said. "That's the issue."

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