Sprucing Up Your Home Network

Products are on the way to keep your files secure and link PC-Mac households

I got a lot of questions in response to my recent column (Jan. 18) on cheap and easy ways to link home computers into a network so you can share a printer or Internet access. Two areas stood out: How to link up Macintoshes and how to guard the security of a home network connected to the Internet.

I'm afraid I created some false expectations when I said my Mac and a Windows PC shared an Internet connection over phone wires. It would be tough for anyone to copy the system. Tut Systems loaned me commercial hardware that it has no plans to sell at retail. I also had to cobble the software together, using WinProxy from Ositis Software (www.ositis.com) to share a Net connection, and PC Maclan from Miramar Systems (www.miramarsys.com) to let the PC and Mac use each other's files.

BE PATIENT. Help is on the way for folks with Macs, or a mix of Macs and PCs, but you are going to have to be patient. Unlike PC companies such as Compaq and Hewlett-Packard, Apple Computer has avoided home networking, preferring to leave it to other companies. Fortunately, Farallon Communications, a longtime supplier of Mac networking gear, has taken up the challenge. This spring, Farallon plans to unveil hardware that will allow any Mac to use a home phone wire for networking, along with software for Net access and PC-Mac file sharing. The products have not yet been priced, but Farallon says they will be competitive with existing Windows products, which should mean around $50 per computer. A little later in the year, 3Com plans to unveil a Mac phone wire adapter that will work with iMacs and the newest G3 computers.

Whether using Macs or Windows, home networks and fast Internet connections raise some privacy and security issues. Anyone on these networks should realize that once file sharing is turned on, the files on any computer could be read by another machine on the local network. Some network security is built into Windows 95 and 98 and MacOS, but it wouldn't stop a bright 8-year-old.

For home users, the dangers are minimal, since anyone in your family can get all of the information in your computer already. A bigger issue is unwittingly sharing files with your neighbors. If you connect to the Internet through a cable modem and have file sharing activated on your computers, your data may be accessible to the 200 or so people who connect to the cable system at the same point. Home networking over power lines, if it becomes practical, can give new meaning to Windows' Network Neighborhood by making your files visible to everyone getting their power from the same transformer, even without an Internet connection.

Cable companies are dealing with the problem. They have started using modems that encrypt all traffic and restrict unauthorized access. You can encrypt sensitive data yourself with a program such as Symantec's Norton Your Eyes Only.

Wireless networking is a good, though more expensive, alternative to the use of phone wires. In my networking column, I overlooked a supplier of wireless gear. The wireless networking cards from WebGear (408 271-9888 or www.webgear.-com) operate in the 900-Mhz band used by cordless phones and cost about $120 a pair (after rebate). This spring, WebGear plans to ship a setup that works in the more reliable 2.4-Ghz band, and that should be an industry price leader at about $199 a pair. One thing I learned from my column is that there are a lot of people who would love to give home networking a try.

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