With Software, Ucentric Builds a Bridge

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Most existing home-networking products support only one of several wired or wireless protocols, but Ucentric Systems believes it has the right software ingredients to put all of those standards in the same pot.

The Maynard, Mass.-based start-up — whose financial backers include former Continental Cablevision Inc. chief Amos Hostetter's Pilot House Ventures — has developed a software bundle designed to allow consumers to share bandwidth and applications with just about any gizmo linked to a home network.

Taking an agnostic, standards-neutral approach, Ucentric's graphics-rich home-portal software — which could one day find a comfy home inside residential gateways, set-tops, televisions, handheld personal digital assistants or even refrigerators — currently supports the 802.11 and HomeRF wireless standards, as well as such wireless platforms as Ethernet and HomePNA.

The idea is for those protocols to work together in syrupy-sweet harmony.

The two-year-old company plans to add protocols such as Bluetooth and HomePlug to the mix — if and when they become widely adopted standards and their cost drops.

"As these technologies become available at the right consumer price points and reliabilities, we'll consider integrating them," said Ucentric director of product management Nick Chakalos. "We'll wait for them to resolve themselves before making a choice."

Some decisions would also be based on how homes in other parts of the world are built, Chakalos noted.

HPNA might not be the best protocol for users in Europe, for example, because homes on the continent typically have just one phone jack. HomePlug or a wireless platform like 802.11 could be a better fit there, he said.

Though Ucentric has invented some home-server hardware for demonstrations and beta trials, the company has no interest in hardware sales. Instead, the company plans to license its software to original electronics manufacturers.

The company already has cemented one deal with Netgear Inc., which plans to offer a Ucentric-powered product this fall. Similar announcements are "weeks" away, said director of marketing strategy Paula Giancola.

OEMs "make products in high volume and do it very well and have very sound, established distribution relationships with service providers, much stronger than what we could forge on our own," Chakalos said. "Our strength is in software applications."

Depending on how many applications it supports, Ucentric could net from $3 to $15 for each piece of software it licenses to manufacturers, said Navin Sabharwal, vice president for residential networking technologies at Allied Business Intelligence.

The home server or residential gateway is merely a home networking "ante," Giancola said.

"The real richness comes from the applications that consumers can have delivered to them in their homes on top of that gateway functionality," he said. "It gives consumers the ability to separate content from their native devices and to put that content where they want everywhere in the home."

That combination could see the dawn of a networked home server that can deliver time-shifted programming to any PC or TV screen on the premises, eliminating the need for separate, relatively static devices. Other possible "shared" applications could include digital music, family calendars, caller ID, Web browsing and instant messaging, Giancola said.

Consumers would be willing to pay $20 to $30 per month, on top of their regular broadband connectivity fees, to have access to such a value-added service, Giancola said. He cited a Ucentric study of 1,100 Internet users completed last October.

That research will put to the test next month, when a group of Speakeasy.net digital-subscriber line customers becomes the first to give Ucentric a whirl. The trial will involve about 20 high-speed customers in Seattle and Boston.

If that pilot is successful, Speakeasy.net could roll out an Ucentric-based home networking service on a commercial basis, a Speakeasy.net spokeswoman said.

That could be wielded as a competitive advantage over cable-modem services.

"We see home networking as a differentiator," the spokeswoman said.

Though Ucentric has taken several steps with its multiprotocol, software-based approach, the company hasn't necessarily been an evangelist.

Several other companies also support multiple home-networking platforms and are aiming to put their software on the gateway device or build equipment that supports several protocols, Sabharwal said. They range from the very large, such as Microsoft Corp. and IBM, to smaller start-ups such as Wind River Systems, GateSpace, ProSyst and DoBox.

Aside from any home- networking magic its software might conjure, he added, the real trick for companies like Ucentric will be to sell manufacturers on this premise: It's easier to license software rather than to create programs in-house and incur the research and development costs tied to that approach.

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