Home networks are about ready to make the transition from plaything for the techno avant garde to mainstream consumer product. Before long, you'll not only be able to have several computers share an Internet connection, but music downloaded to a computer will play on your stereo system, and you'll show the photos stored on your PC hard drive on your TV.
Today's home networks, however, carry the legacy of their development as academic and corporate tools: They are way too complex for most folks to configure and manage. We need a combination of hardware and services that will allow people to enjoy the benefits of linking home systems together without first having to become network engineers.
The Servio PS-100 home server from Memora Corp. (www.memora.com), starting at $1,295, doesn't completely solve the problem, but I found it was a big step in the right direction. The Servio is about the size and shape of a small minitower PC. It runs on the Linux operating system and--because all interaction takes place through your usual Web browser--Servio doesn't require its own monitor or keyboard.
The Servio acts as a gateway linking computers to your Internet connection as well as serving as a firewall. More important, it lets you get your systems talking without your knowing more than how to plug in a cable. It comes configured based on the information you give about your setup, so you need not deal with the mumbo-jumbo of IP addresses and DNS servers. Servio is managed and updated remotely by Memora technicians.
Managing a home network isn't a $1,295 job, but the Servio does a lot more to justify the cost. Probably most important, it serves as a repository for your digital music. When you pop a disk into the CD-RW drive, it converts the tracks to MP3 format and saves them to Servio's 30-gigabyte hard drive, which could hold over 500 hours of music. A 60-GB drive is a $200 option. The music can be played on any computer on your home network or out on the Internet simply by entering the Web address of your Servio in your browser and logging in with a user name and password. Internet Explorer and the latest version of Windows Media Player (or QuickTime on a Mac) are required. The Servio can create CDs from your playlists. Unfortunately, it writes disks only in standard 74-minute audio-CD format, meaning that you cannot take advantage of the new CD players that give you 10 hours to a disk by reading MP3s.
You can move photos and videos from any PC to the Servio just by dragging them into a browser window. Pictures can be transferred back to computers for editing or printing and can also be written out to CD.
With a Servio, you get your own mail system, with an address something like email@example.com. You can read or write mail for accounts on the Servio from any browser, anywhere on the Net. It works a lot like any Web-based mail program, such as Hotmail.
ON THE PLANNING BOARD. The Servio is far from perfect. It plugs directly into a cable modem but does less well with the more complex DSL phone service, typically requiring an additional piece of equipment, such as a $100 Linksys DSL router. Memora plans to improve DSL support. And the remote management capability lets new features be added to installed units without the owner doing a thing. Another feature planned for future upgrades is a document repository, which would let a Servio be used to share Word documents and other files.
One missing feature is wireless Ethernet. Home networks are increasingly being based on wireless, and while the Servio works fine with an external wireless base station, it's a complexity that consumers must cope with themselves. Built-in, remotely managed wireless is under development.
As home networks grow more complex--and as they expand to include stereo systems and televisions, as well as computers--the need for remote configuration and management will become critical. So far, neither equipment makers nor service providers have shown much interest, but maybe a startup like Memora can show the way.