Internet: The Wired Home

Published Aug 16, 2004
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When the Web emerged in the early nineties, pundits wasted no time in starting to talk about the merging of different media – the phenomenon known as convergence. Only problem is, there was none. As is so often the case, people’s communication and entertainment habits tend to stick, and new media take their place alongside existing ones; they don’t replace them. In fact, the convergence has been slow in coming, excruciatingly so for business sectors depending on rapid change, such as the computer and telecommunications industries.

Internet: The Wired Home-Body-2

The Age of Convergence
Since the mid-nineties, these industries have tried to change how we consume entertainment, how we communicate and interact; and crucially, they have tried to mix these important social activities. Throughout the dotcom era, companies emerged (and disappeared, mostly) with ideas for how we should work, play, and be together. Many of these ideas were very good, some were ludicrously bad; a lot of them were just too far ahead of their time.

But now the clever ideas of engineers, designers, and business developers have come into alignment with popular demand. We have entered the age of true convergence – our homes are turning into networks of their own, with tendrils snaking from device to device with or without physical wires. Being wired can very well mean being wireless. Our domiciles are becoming wired homes, and now the future imagined by science fiction writers and overeager tech pundits for decades seems to be turning into present reality.

Consumers are getting more electronic devices and gizmos than ever before, and they are increasingly connected. Set-top boxes, digital video recorders equipped with hard drives and Ethernet cards, MP3- players, gaming consoles hooked up to the Net, ebooks, PDAs – even digital picture frames with Internet connections. These devices all communicate using TCP/IP – the standard protocol for Internet traffic. The message spelled out by all the gadgets communicating is that we are entering the Age of Convergence.

Trends Working Together
The Wired Home is enabled by the dominant trends of consumer electronics, all peaking at the same time – travelling from the small percentage of tech-savvy early adopters into the mainstream. First of these is the rise of digital media – in particular digital television. It started in the 80’s with the CD, but know it is everywhere: The VHS format has been replaced by DVD, nobody buys analog video cameras anymore, digital still cameras outsell film-loaded cameras, and digital cable television is growing exponentially – sanctioned in Norway by the government’s decision to replace the old TV distribution system with nationwide digital distribution. With the exception of radio, your media experience is turning completely digital.

Piggybacking on this trend is the fantastic growth of home surround systems – creating personal movie theatres in living rooms across the globe. DVD has brought high-quality video and sound, and consumers now have a reason to upgrade their home entertainment systems. So now people are buying fancy TVs by the truckload – wide-screen, flat-screen, LCD, projectors – hooking them up to surround sound systems, and connecting DVD-players, hard-disk recorders and all kinds of media devices, including the PC. The result is a demand for content to fit the broader, bigger screen and superior sound and image quality.

Broadband Breakthrough
So the home hardware sets the stage, but none of this would create true connectivity without the broadband revolution itself. The most important trend is that broadband Internet is finally breaking into the mainstream. According to the research company Norsk Gallup, close to 1.3 million Norwegian homes have access to the Internet. Around 400,000 of these connections are of the broadband variety – enabling high-speed Internet and a host of content, services, and options, all unavailable to the narrowband home. The broadband market is reaching critical mass, which means that content and service providers can generate sufficient revenue to make all that R&D spending pay off. For the consumer, this spells new services – new ways of communicating and consuming content.

For a long time, broadcast television has been stagnating in the major Western markets – particularly in the U.S. The allimportant young adult demographic, spanning the 18-to- 35-range, is increasingly looking to the Internet for entertainment, with file-sharing and online gaming among the most popular pastimes. Since Norway is a smaller market, this trend has been slower in manifesting itself here – at least with sufficient numbers to create a revenue-generating market – but it is coming, and coming fast. And when people get used to enjoying content on their PCs, they want to connect everything – to create a unified, wired media center where entertainment can be consumed on several terminals, not just the living room TV.

Entertainment Heaven
The wired home gives you online gaming on PC and console. This does not only mean huge multiplayer role-playing games like Everquest and Anarchy Online; or shooters like Quake, Counter Strike, and Socom – games that primarily target youth. A big portion of the online gaming community is devoted to offline games such as bridge, chess, or poker – played by people of all ages – and they are driving industry development.

Film buffs can download movies on demand, without having to return the movies to a store, or even get up off the couch. The same goes for music videos and downloads. These legitimate services are expected to take a big chunk of the existing file-sharing market. And because they are ridiculously easy to use, these services will turn new crowds of not-so-technically-knowledgeable consumers on to the wired lifestyle.

Advanced Applications
Away from the TV and stereos system, there are plenty of exciting other applications, tools and gismos that come alive with a broadband connection. Some might want to hook up their own inhouse surveillance system, with cameras hooked up to their laptop via Wi-Fi. Today's wireless Internet cameras include audio, motion detection, and e-mail alerts. So you can check your laptop to see who’s at the door, see if your kids are sleeping like they should, or keep an eye on your Benz in the garage. Hooking this up to an alarm system gives you the security overview you need to sleep safely. Unless your server crashes, of course…

More enterprising consumers may program their PC to run other household devices. Wouldn’t it be nice to have steaming fresh coffee by the time you get out of the shower? Or you can stick a roast in the oven and have it start cooking an hour and a half before you get home from work. If you are a stickler for organizational detail, you may want to hook up your lights, your air-conditioning, or your heating. The possibilities are endless.

Anything Can Happen
You may read this and think I am going completely overboard with futuristic imagery and technological optimism. But remember this: I am not talking about a change that will turn humans into cyborgs. I am addressing a convergence of technological developments and market trends that are finally enabling services that could not be implemented before, because the technology wasn’t there – and the people weren’t ready. Both of these forces had to come into alignment before we could talk about home networking.

Internet: The Wired Home-Body

But broadband Internet seems finally to be living up to its initial promise – and bandwidth is cheap. What we think of as broadband today, say, a 1-megabit DSL line, will be obsolete in a few years. The trend is turning towards dynamic bandwidth, where you get what you need for optimal performance of whatever service you are using. Only when we stop talking about bandwidth and connection speed, will we have true broadband connectivity. There is still a ways to go.

But, from here on in, anything can happen.

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