Networking is a dark art, and putting the word "home" in front of it makes it no simpler. Debugging a home network is not for the faint of heart--the intelligence of the on-screen wizards peters out after the first few obvious fixes, and soon you're checking help forums, running ipconfig commands, and tweaking DHCP settings.
So today's news from The New York Times--that networking giant Cisco Systems is getting into the consumer electronics business--filled me with dread.
The idea of piping audio files from your computer to your home stereo or other audio devices is valid: I'm a big fan of the Sonos Multiroom Audio system, and Logitech and Apple have also made a go at it. But all three of these companies specialize in consumer products. They understand--nay, live and breathe--the process of hiding complexity under a clear user interface.
Playing music from multiple sources in a single playlist on a Sonos system is simple. Connecting a Mac or iPhone to an existing home network is almost invisibly simple.
Cisco's purchase of Linksys got the company into the consumer home-networking space. While setting up my Linksys wireless router for the first time was relatively painless, thanks to a downloadable applet, I had to use their free phone support line several times over the next few years to debug mysterious problems that cropped up.
The support itself was great--a real person always picked up immediately, and they were always able to resolve my problem eventually--but the complexity of the underyling technology just couldn't be hidden. Any support call that asks you to log into your router to check your DHCP settings is not simple, even if you are walked through the steps.
Cisco's a solid engineering company. If it manages to hire some great UI designers and brands these products appropriately--coming up with names that are more interesting than these would be a start--it has a fighting chance. If it thinks that enabling multiroom audio is just a few simple tweaks to its existing home networking products, forget about it.