What's up at your house? A little Wi-Fi, a little VPN, maybe some network-attached storage or a home server? It's astounding how many highfalutin enterprise technologies came home for the holidays and settled in.
It's clear from the high profile of novel PC products at the annual International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that we've embarked on another industrywide home computing initiative. This time, it's not just about home computers-those what-chamacallits, Media Center PCs. Now, development is in networking, connectivity and moving big, fat files among all our devices at home-and beyond.
The distributed data model that's washed down from enterprises and over small- and midsize-business offices is splashing up on mobile workers and home offices, too. We're seeing products like the Mirrahome server, D-Link'snetwork-attached Home Storage Drive, and broadband modem/router gateways from 2Wire, Linksys and Netgear that wirelessly download office desktops to kitchen tables. These are solutions to one business problem that has followed us home: fetching remote data anywhere, anytime.
A recent University of California, Berkeley, study found that almost 800MB of new information is generated per person annually. But a lot of information is in multimedia files, such as digital photos, music, movies and Microsoft Office output.
Multimedia files live in different locations in different kinds of devices that often get used for recreation. But today's recreational electronics are becoming powerful computer- based tools that can be put to work. Also, whatever it is that inspires a knowledge worker to buy networking technology, the desire to improve individual productivity at home is usually a component.
Telecommuting is as old as the PC. But having a worldwide communications backbone kicks it into high gear. A recent office productivity survey from CCH Inc., which provides tax and business law information and software, found that about 45 percent of American companies have formal programs encouraging telecommuting, a trend that stalled somewhere during the recession.
But with the economy and broadband installations picking up again, we're steaming out of the Information Age and into the Communications Age. The University of California, Berkeley, study turned up another fact: We generate three times as much new information with the telephone as with a computer. Our fast-growing piles of e-mail and instant messages blend both but are still dwarfed by phone traffic.
Another interesting data point comes from telecom research firm IDC: Most business information is no longer stored on the computing device using it. Rather, we're much more likely to access communal data stored on network-attached drives over the Internet.
Home Shopping Network
Besides Wi-Fi access points, items such as big-screen plasma TVs, TiVo DVRs and DVD recorders have been hot sellers at CompUSA, says Marc Lamb, former CompUSA home integration unit national sales manager. When these recreational products are added to a home network, they let you store and use large multimedia files in ways the average PC can't.
Intel, Microsoft and other computer bell cows are focused on these connections. That's what Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition is all about-though you don't have to spend thousands on a Media Center PC. Adaptec's $170 VideOh! DVD Media Center PC Edition, for example, saves DVD and TV content to disk, and Buffalo Technology's Air-Station G54 line lets you connect any USB- or Ethernet-equipped device or Ethernet to your wireless network.
Why not be able to read e-mail from a couch on a plasma TV, add a movie clip to a presentation, or catch Net news broadcasts in the bathroom? Microsoft's Mira initiative would connect flat panels all over your house, and structured wiring in new housing developments helps by putting cable TV, broadband Internet and Ethernet jacks in every room.
Once we reach a critical mass of big-pipe connections, video versions of e-mail could become popular. So could multipoint videoconferencing that can free the meeting-bound from the daily commute. Business is increasingly global, and it could let you and other employees meet customers and traveling co-workers "face-to-face" at odd hours.
You'll want to support new work paradigms for employees-at least, guaranteeing security by paying for VPNs. What if you also financed part of Internet connection fees-say, as a perk for key employees? That's likely to encourage investments in home offices and equipment-which don't show up on your balance sheet or cash-flow statement, but bolster your bottom line.
A quarter century ago, go-getter employees were sneaking Apple IIs into their corporate offices so they could do more in less time, and they sparked a productivity revolution. Today, they want Internet connections and wireless home networks so they can work nights and weekends. Who can argue with that?
Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor. Write to him at email@example.com.