Network: The links that will revolutionise PCs

Faster access to the Internet plus cheap and efficient networking could radically alter the way we use computers. By Stephen Pritchard
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The Independent Culture
The home of the future will be as connected, or perhaps even better connected, than most of today's offices, if the predictions of Eric Benhamou, 3Com's president and chief executive officer, prove to be true. 3Com is one of the world leaders in computer networking equipment and, since its purchase of US Robotics last year, in modems, too. According to market research, 3Com is one of the most recognised computing brands in the United States. The company's public perception ranks alongside Hewlett-Packard - and even above that of Microsoft.

3Com was founded in 1979 in California; the company pioneered the ethernet networking standard. Ethernet is now used in offices worldwide, but in 1979, the idea of a PC, let alone a group of PCs that could share information, was very much in its infancy. In the last two decades, computer networks have become big business. Cheap and efficient networking helped the PC take on mainframe computers, and win. More recently, computer networks, in the form of the Internet, have started to capture the public imagination. The Net provides companies such as 3Com with an enormous, uncaptured market.

Computer users' desires for faster, smoother Internet access is a key driver of 3Com's success. The company has been at the forefront of developing more powerful modem technologies. Today's 56k modems are four times as fast as the standard modem three years ago, but they cost less. 3Com is heavily involved in developing devices to connect computers to cable networks, emerging technologies such as DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) and ISDN. It also makes connectors for GSM mobile phones and the RAM wireless data network. "The demand for faster Internet access is driven by many of the same applications we use now: e-mail with attachments, Web browsing, and research," Mr Benhamou says. "Some of the new applications that come to life are streaming audio and video, either video conferencing, or video on demand. There are over 10,000 radio stations on the Internet today broadcasting audio content. With faster connections, it's likely that we will see digital audio sites that stream CD-quality audio into the home in the background while you're surfing the Web or e-mailing."

DSL, including the version BT is currently testing in west London, is an "always on" technology. Computers are permanently connected to the Internet, and there are no time-based charges for that connection. This feature, Mr Benhamou believes, will open up the real potential of the Internet for homes. "The Internet becomes far more compelling with persistent connections," he says.

Faster access, suggests Mr Benhamou, will encourage us to rethink the way we use our computers, and the way they talk to each other. In developed computer markets, such as the United States, Germany and the UK, Benhamou points out, there are already multi-PC households. Sometimes this is because one or more family members work from home. Sometimes, households upgrade, but keep their old PCs. Sometimes it stems from adults wanting to reclaim the PC from their kids. 3Com estimates that around 60 per cent of PCs sold through retailers go into homes that already have a computer.

It makes far more sense to connect all the computers in a home to the Internet through a single, powerful connection than by attaching a relatively slow modem to each PC and a phone line. It is also much more economical. BT's trial, for example, costs pounds 30 a month for connection and the hardware. 3Com's solution to sharing that bandwidth - or the comparable technology from cable companies - is through a mini-network in the home. Mr Benhamou points to an increasing number of property developers who are building flexible network cables into their house designs in the US and Europe. 3Com is also a key member of consortia that are developing networking technologies that will deliver either 1Mbps or 10Mbps - the same speed as ethernet - over domestic phone cables or mains electric wiring. Mr Benhamou expects products to hit the market in 1999, and prices to start at little more than $20.

"Home networking can deliver on this tremendous opportunity for multi- PC households to share files, peripherals and an Internet connection via low-cost networking solutions," Mr Benhamou says. "Our HomeConnect brand will deliver products that allow multi-PC connectivity within the home and out to the Internet, enabling a range of new applications like streaming multimedia."

Mr Benhamou predicts that falling PC prices will help the Internet to reach more homes, but his vision is not restricted to PCs. Away from the business market, developments such as Internet-based broadcasting or video on demand will encourage households to go online. It will also fuel development of Internet access devices that bear little resemblance to conventional PCs.

Mr Benhamou believes the jury is still out on concepts such as Microsoft- backed web TV, but he can see the huge potential of devices which deliver Internet connectivity to the home TV set, especially for applications such as electronic banking or travel bookings. As important, he predicts, will be advances based around the telephone and hand-held computers. 3Com is already the leader in the palmtop market with its Palm range of "connected organisers".

In July this year, 3Com entered into an alliance with Siemens, creating a joint venture that will integrate computer communications with telephony. The Siemens alliance gives 3Com valuable access to technologies more often associated with telecommunications. The joint venture is developing systems that integrate data, voice and video over single networks.

Phone handsets will become increasingly important ways to access the Internet too. Smartphones with built-in displays offer a low-cost way to connect households, especially to e-mail. Mobile phones will play their part, as will integrated mobile devices. In the US, 3Com has just announced the Palm 7, which has built-in access to the RAM network. In Europe, there will be a version built around GSM, and 3Com expects to develop organisers based around the Blue Tooth wireless communications system that is backed by companies such as Intel, TDK and Nokia.

"The home network becomes the platform for these devices co-existing within the home," says Mr Benhamou. "We anticipate that set-top boxes, smartphones, PCs and devices like the Palm will have network connections that will allow them to share information and Internet access within the home. "Think of what happened with electricity," he adds. "No one imagined they'd have hair-dryers or toasters when they wired the early homes. But the utility of power caused technology to take advantage of electricity. With an enabling "utility" like a home network, appliances will spring up to keep consumers more connected to the people and information that matter to them."