• Todd Thibodeaux, an economist from Arlington, VA., has eight computers in the eight-room house he and his wife Clare share. He wanted all his computers to communicate with one another, just as they would at any corporate office. He also wanted the freedom to work on his website, do a little Web surfing, online shopping or banking from wherever he happened to be--in the kitchen, basement, den or bedroom--without having to wait for Clare to finish surfing first. So last October the Thibodeauxs started building a home network. Three weeks and $950 later, their Ethernet baby was born.

    It was not easy labor. It took time and money, not to mention multiple trips to Best Buy, Home Depot and CompUSA, to get the job done. The couple spent hours drilling holes through nearly every wall of the house so they could string Ethernet cable from PC to PC and create wall outlets for those cables to plug into. Thibodeaux also had to figure out how to configure three Macs, three Windows PCs and two laptops so the computers would not just talk to one another but speak the same language. The couple managed to clear all these hurdles and are happy with the results. "With the right instructions," Todd Thibodeaux now says, "anyone could have done what I did."

    Yeah, sure. Piece of cake.

    Thibodeaux is what you'd call a computer hobbyist, a techno-geek of the highest order--not like the average consumer. There are a lot more of those: people who like the idea of a home computer network but wouldn't want to spend all their spare time (or even one Saturday) reading technical manuals, shopping for parts, reconfiguring hard drives and rewiring the house. If you wanted to network a few PCs a few months ago, you really had to be a Todd Thibodeaux to pull it off--or spend thousands of dollars hiring professionals to do it for you.

    But times have changed. A host of new technologies is promising simpler (and much cheaper) "plug-and-play" ways to network computers in the home or small office. What's driving the market is the notion that consumers would jump at the chance to network if only they were given the right tools to do it.

    Approximately 21 million U.S. households have more than one PC today, and that number is expected to jump to 31 million by 2003. Working at home is becoming increasingly popular as well: today's 37 million home offices are expected to balloon to 50 million in three years. Meantime, the Internet has become the "killer app" among all PC users, business or pleasure. And therein lies the most compelling reason to set up a network in the first place: to share a single modem and single Internet service.

    Sure, there are other benefits, such as being able to share printers, scanners, fax machines and zip drives, and to be able to swap files instantly. But Net access, particularly high-speed access, say industry analysts, will be what really drives consumer demand. New York research firm Jupiter Communications predicts that one-fifth of American homes will have a digital subscriber line, cable modem and other high-speed pipe by 2002. You can bet that everyone in those homes--whether they like to play games, shop, chat, or trade stocks online--will want to share the big bandwidth.

    The simplest new way to network is to connect every PC to the nearest phone jack, using standard copper phone lines as the means of communication rather than Ethernet cables. A variation of this "no-new-cables" theme is to plug every PC into the nearest electrical wall outlet to establish communications over existing power lines. A third new way to network is to use wireless communication.

    There is a fourth way, which is really an update of a tried-and-true formula: the Ethernet Local Area Network (LAN), specially tailored for the layperson (call it Thibodeaux Lite). Some argue Ethernet connections are still the most reliable. Still, dozens of companies big and small are moving quickly into the unchartered territory of using phone lines and power lines, eager to stake a claim in--or enlarge their existing share of--a market they see as vastly untapped. Considering that only 12% of today's multiple-PC homes are networked, they may be on to something.

    Telephone and cable companies providing high-speed Internet services are watching the market closely too. They know that the higher price they will be charging for a Net connection that will replace relatively cheap 56K modems and analog service will be that much more palatable if the fat pipe can be shared by multiple PCs, notes IDC research manager Warren Childs. To help make their case, these telephone and cable companies will start peddling new consumer-friendly home-networking products. IBM and Bell Atlantic, for example, have teamed up to wire 15,000 homes from Maine to Virginia for home networking over phone lines.

    The market is so ripe that even Cisco, the largest computer-networking equipment manufacturer and supplier of 80% of the Internet's electronic plumbing, is now eyeing the consumer retail side. Cisco has teamed up with AT&T; to provide home networking equipment to its future cable modem subscribers. Virtually every other big tech company--among them Intel, Microsoft, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard--is getting into the game too, promising everything from cheap-and-easy home networking kits to "home network-ready" PCs.

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