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Home Is Where Wireless Vendors' Heart Is At CES

Moving the industry closer toward the convergence of PCs and consumer electronics devices, an array of networking vendors at this week's Consumer Electronics Show demonstrated products designed to ease wireless video sharing in the home.
Moving the industry closer toward the convergence of PCs and consumer electronics devices, an array of networking vendors at this week’s International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas demonstrated products designed to ease wireless video sharing in the home.

Several companies already offer media servers that move audio and digital image files between networked devices. But the latest series of products at CES now support digital movies, recorded television programs and more robust audio. Most of the devices, which accept streaming media via the 802.11g wireless standard, connect directly to television and stereo systems.

Buffalo Technology, for one, on Thursday unveiled the Link Theatre High Definition Wireless Media Player. The wireless unit, which resembles a typical DVD player, streams Windows Media high-definition movies, music and digital images, and contains a built-in DVD player. It also supports MovieLink and CinemaNow, two of the leading movie-download services. Buffalo expects to ship the device in February at a price of $349, representatives of the Austin, Texas-based vendor said.

Earlier this week, Linksys, Irvine, Calif., announced the Wireless-G Media Link, which includes USB ports to add external storage or flash readers to the network. Linksys expects to release the Media Link in the second quarter for $249. Linksys said the device will also support downloaded movies from MovieLink and Cinema Now, both in Microsoft's high-definition format.

Meanwhile, representatives of D-Link said the Irvine, Calif.-based vendor would soon release several versions of its MediaLounge wireless media player. One will have a built-in DVD player, and another is expected to include 80 Gbytes of built-in storage. Both will contain a USB port. Pricing for the products hasn't been finalized, they said.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Netgear showed off its previously announced Wireless Digital Media Player, which is expected to ship early this year and cost about $220. The product will include Netgear's RangeMax technology, which provides increased range and throughput to ensure that streaming video isn't interrupted by packet loss.

Netgear also plans to offer a remote-access service through a partner, Union City, Calif.-based startup Orb Networks. Orb’s service allows subscribers to tap into the Netgear media player from remote locations and download content. It will be priced at $9.99 per month, or $79.99 per year for the first user, and additional users on the account pay $3.99 per month, according to Orb.

The CES lineup of new media players, along with VoIP and network-attached storage, is being hailed as the next wave of wireless technology for homes as margins on traditional wireless routers continue to drop. The trend also is helping to push traditional computer companies further into the realm of consumer electronics, where companies such as Sony and Panasonic now play.

Malachy Moynihan, vice president of engineering and product marketing at Linksys, said that given the current penetration of wireless networking into the home, there's now a market for advanced wireless services--whether that be through devices purchased from retailers or installed by home integrators or other service providers.

"People are going to want to get their media on disaggregated devices over the next several years," Moynihan said.

One issue with the new media servers is a lack of available video content. Though users can store and playback their own video, the current movie download services still have a limited selection. What's more, digital rights management (DRM) technology in the units curtails illegal downloads, and protection schemes in DVDs also preclude streaming DVD content through the servers. A number of vendors at CES also complained that the AAC default format of Apple's iTunes software won't stream over the servers, putting a damper on the robust market of iPod users who want to share music throughout the home.

Linksys has been working with a variety of content producers to spur more participation in wireless multimedia. "It's about building an ecosystem of partners in this new market," Moynihan said. "The industry is still struggling with how to be profitable [in this environment]."

A division of Cisco Systems, Linksys clearly signaled its intent to be a player in the CE market moving forward. Though Linksys will likely work with many of the existing CE makers, Moynihan noted that the company's technology expertise has made it "nimble" in a time when product features and form factors are changing quickly.

"We have the ability to emerge as a new brand in that space," Moynihan said.

Netgear CEO Patrick Lo said his company still sees quite a bit of growth from traditional access points as broadband penetration grows from about 20 percent to what he expects to be 40 percent next year and 60 percent the following year. For media players to take off, Netgear will be "looking for a proliferation of content,” Lo said.

Also announced at CES were a variety of wireless routers that support a precursor to 802.11n, the next iteration of the wireless standard. Though most companies won't commit to specific throughputs, they say it will offer a significant speed bump over 802.11g as well as increased range, a necessary component when moving large chunks of data over the network.

D-Link announced at CES probably one of the most aggressive offerings of such devices, which the company said will deliver throughput of 108Mbps and have four Gigabit Ethernet ports.