Will HP and Sony Go Head-to-Head for the Wireless Home?

Hewlett-Packard may be the only hardware company besides Sony that intends to supply the actual products that achieve the wirelessly networked home. Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin wonders if the two consumer technology companies are heading for a s

To borrow the old adage about the three types of lies, there is hype, damned hype and vision. Standing before a wall of 100 new products, Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina heralded an end to the era of complexity and foretold a networked home that has digital devices crammed into every crevice. HP has truly shown its engineering prowess by inventing a time machine; her speech took me back to the days when startups from Diba to Netpliance and outsiders like 3Com with its kitchen-bound Audrey tried to invent markets.

Unlike those past weak efforts, though, HP can put a stake in the ground of the digital domicile in at least a few device categories. It is the leader in consumer PCs (at least in the retail channel), and continues to dominate in printer market share. Now, however, HP wants to expand into the living room. Indeed, one of the future concept devices HP showed was a massive hard-disk-based digital video recorder intended for High-Definition Television.

Fiorina emphasized its embrace of standards and partnerships to achieve its goals. Swiping at Sonys penchant for proprietary standards, Fiorina emphasized how it was part of HPs culture to be a good partner. Indeed, she mentioned two of Sonys strongest competitors as key HP partners: Sonys old rival, Philips, and its new rival, Microsoft. Whereas Microsoft clearly creates the future of where the Windows PC is heading; on the other hand, the Philips partnership appeared less strategic and more of a supplier relationship for now. That partnership may need to expand for HP to take on Sony in the living room.

One example of the contrast in styles between HP and Sony is emerging category of media bridges that allow you to transfer music and other digital content from your PC to your television. HPs effort, while relatively inexpensive and broadly compatible with other 802.11b gear, can transfer only music and pictures. Sonys RoomLink A/V, which uses the 802.11a standard, can transfer video at an acceptable rate, but doesnt play well with most other consumer PC gear.

Partnership may be part of HPs DNA, but imaging is even more-important, and its here that HP is focusing much of its wireless efforts. One of the most impressive products the company showed off was the PSC 2510, which in being the first "all in one" multifunction printer, may also be the first Wi-Fi scanner. The PSC 2510 can connect to up to five devices and, to HPs credit, supports both wireless printing and scanning as a true all-in-one device should. Its limit of supporting five computers shouldnt be a serious setback given its target market of home users.

In addition, HP continues to support Bluetooth and its using it in a smart way. One of the first vendors to release a printer with integrated Bluetooth, HP is now using that technology in its mobile printers and even supports printing from Bluetooth-enabled Nokia cell phones. Perhaps owing to the difficulty in getting Wi-Fi into some mobile platforms, the computing giant has not integrated wireless into its expanded digital camera line.

Products like the PSC 2510 add great value to a wireless network. When laser printers were introduced, they were shared to reduce costs; sharing printers wirelessly now enhances convenience. HP shouldnt blindly add wireless to every scientific calculator it sells, but it will still need to get its computing, storage, and imaging groups collaborating more if it wants to see more of its vision become reality.

Can HP expand beyond its computing base to truly enable the digital home? Can Sony get us there? E-mail me.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.

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