Two megatrends in home computing-wireless networking and the digitization of music and video-are beginning to collide. The initial products give a taste of things to come, but technical challenges remain.
Last year, more than 50 million 802.11 chip sets were sold. On the music front, Apple sold more iPods than computers last quarter, along with 30 million songs from its iTunes Music Store. Apple's new Airport Express merges those trends. This $129 palm-size gizmo plugs directly into any home stereo system and plays music beamed wirelessly from a Macintosh computer. This inexpensive device allows consumers to easily enjoy their digital music throughout the home rather than just on their computer.
Likewise, the newest TiVo boxes not only store and replay television programs, they also can transfer video from one TiVo to another through a wired network. The next step is to move digitized video wirelessly to another screen in the house.
Video, however, begins to strain a wireless network. A compressed video stream requires between 1 and 6 Mbits/second, depending on the quality, which can exceed the delivered throughput of an 802.11b network. A full-resolution HDTV stream requires 17 Mbits/s, about the maximum throughput of standard 802.11g devices.
Furthermore, both .11b and .11g use the 2.4-GHz spectrum, which is prone to interference. Another problem is that most 802.11 networks don't support quality-of-service provisions that give real-time audio and video streams priority over data traffic. A new standard, 802.11e, defines QoS extensions but has not yet been ratified.
Startups Bermai and IceFyre offer 802.11a chip sets with draft 802.11e extensions. But so do 802.11 leaders Broadcom and Atheros.
I expect that, within a few years, major consumer electronics vendors will offer a set of components to store, transmit wirelessly and play audio and video content on any screen or speakers in a home. To do so, these vendors must solve ease-of-use, standards and price issues.
First, chip vendors must deliver the enabling technologies.
Linley Gwennap is founder and principal analyst of The Linley Group (www.linleygroup.com/npu).