Illustration: Jason Schneider
Soon after Jeff Herbst signed up with his cable company to have a high-speed Internet connection in his Silicon Valley home, an unexpected problem developed — not technical, but marital. "We both had our own computers, but my wife and I started to fight over who could go online," Herbst recalls. They could have resolved the dispute by getting a second cable modem, but at $40 a month plus installation, this wasn't an appealing alternative. So Herbst ended the bickering by installing a network that lets their two computers simply tap into one Internet connection through a box called a home gateway. He can check the early trading of his stock portfolio on a bedside laptop computer at the same time she is catching up on her e-mail downstairs on her desktop. After only a few weeks with his system, Herbst, executive vice president at a software firm, became a networking enthusiast. "This technology is really going to change people's lives," he says.

Herbst is not alone in this thinking. The growing numbers of high-speed Internet connections provided by DSL and cable modems has been driving the demand for residential networks. But the advantages of networking go beyond allowing several household computers to tap into one costly Internet hookup. Once a home is networked, kids can square off in a virtual battle between two computers. Instant messages between PCs in different parts of the house can replace shouting up the stairway. And expensive peripherals, such as photo-quality color printers, become accessible to every computer in the house. In the long run, a network will likely become the house's central nervous system, monitoring and controlling everything from lighting, security, and HVAC systems to such seemingly low-tech items as refrigerators, kitchen ranges, and washing machines.

Until recently, computer networks were solely the province of the business world. Only offices had the resources to buy all the software and the different pieces of hardware needed to receive information from the Internet, convert it to a format that a personal computer can understand, parcel the appropriate pieces of data out to each networked device (printers, external hard drives, and other peripherals), and allow the smooth, uninterrupted flow of digital information between these devices or back out to the Internet. And only a business could afford to hire the technicians needed to set up, troubleshoot, monitor, and routinely service each system's complex electronic choreography.

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