Forrester: digital home not where the heart is

8 Apr 2004

Visions of a digital home, where all kinds of household consumer devices communicate with the user and with each other, are very premature according to Forrester Research.

The promise of a single networking environment where entertainment, communications and applications can all be controlled and shared has been branded a myth by the technology analyst firm.

“We’re not there yet – not even close,” said Chris Charron, devices, media and marketing group director of Forrester. He cited “paltry” figures that show just 2.1 million households in the US and 2 million in Western Europe are using digital home applications. “Of the five technology building blocks of the digital home, the network is farthest along. Processing intelligence and content have a long way to go. If you have visions of consumers using remote technologies to control the security and lighting in their home via a home network, leave those ideas to your imagination for now,” said Charron.

Many prominent companies in the consumer entertainment, mobile and PC sectors are betting on a future where connected homes are a part of everyday life. For example, the Digital Home Working Group is an industry forum with a membership roster that includes Sony, Intel, Microsoft, Panasonic, Nokia, IBM, Kenwood, Samsung and HP. The group’s credo is that industry collaboration must encompass manufacturers, software and application developers, and service and content providers.

Forrester does not dismiss the concept totally out of hand, saying that it will happen, but the firm does not pin itself down to naming a date in the near term. It has forecast that four years from now, the number of US households with home networks will have increased to 37 million. The next stage in the process will see the maturing of applications and content on those networks, followed by changes in business and consumer behaviour.

According to Charron, there are defining characteristics to every technology shift. Just as the printing press allowed mass communication and the telegraph divorced communication from transportation, broadcasting allowed instantaneous mass communication and the internet provided a two-way channel of communication. “The defining characteristic of the digital home is the liberation of experiences from technology,” said Charron. “For the first time, interoperability, networked devices, and cheap storage will unmoor content and applications from particular devices, distribution channels, and locations.”

Allied to this trend, other elements underpinning the digital home must be in place, Forrester suggested. Companies in the distribution business (hardware or wires) must create “experiences” – that means device manufacturers companies such as HP and Dell, or cable and telecoms providers will need to move further into developing exclusive services or content, such as home network service and monitoring, video search, and command-and-control applications.

The second part of this theory puts engagement at a premium. “With so many options for content and applications, measuring the gross use – ie, reach and frequency of traditional media – is next to useless. Mobile phones and the PC have already had a huge impact on consumer multitasking for traditional media – especially the TV,” said Charron.

The vision of a digital home will also mean the end for traditional human-to-machine interfaces such as mice, keyboards, links and universal remotes. “We see that the only way to achieve this complexity of interaction with ease of use for a mass audience is through a voice-enabled universal browser,” Charron predicted.

Lastly, the concept will rely on power. Simply put, batteries and backup generators will take off. “In a world of wired homes, the power grid rises in importance,” Charron observed. “Without stocks of powerful batteries and back-up generators, consumers will flail, as they did in the latest East Coast power outage when people were shocked to find that their cordless phones ran out of gas, and the office toilets didn’t flush because they had been replaced by movement-sensing automatic flushers… it all comes back to the banalities of daily life.”

By Gordon Smith