EXPLOITING THE NETWORK Entertainment, games, and plenty more are being passed around the most connected households

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You probably know a family that has established a network at home to connect all its computers. Each person in the house probably uses the network to share broadband internet access, the printer maybe, or a few files.

What's far less likely is that you have friends who are
using their networks to share entertainment: music, photographs, shows
recorded from television, games, movies, and more.

Unless you know someone like Paul Antico of Beverly. Or Tracy
Capone-Blake of Lakeville. Or Chris Martino of Boylston. Or Seth
Rubinson of Andover.

Heard individually, their stories might tempt you to be dismissive:
Get a life, you might think. But together, their stories describe a
trend, if not a movement, toward a future that's no longer somewhere
over the horizon.

Not only do they use their computers to store their digital photos,
they show them on their television when guests come over. Not only have
they ripped their favorite CDs onto their hard drive, they can listen
on the closest available speakers - instead of being chained to the
tinny ones that came with the computer. They can record a show on the
Tivo machine downstairs, then watch it upstairs.

These folks are of a type, people who seize upon new technologies -
in this case, faster internet connections, faster computers, and
networking that's both faster and easier - to make machines conform to
their lifestyles, rather than accepting their limitations. They're
known as early adopters. Antico, 31, would certainly answer to that
label.

Antico, who works for the Transportation Security Agency at Logan
Airport, uses a combination of wired and wireless devices to form his
network, but said he wasn't trying to stretch the electronic envelope
when he started out. "I wanted to get things downstairs without having
to string wires. I live in an apartment so that wouldn't have been
easy. So I got the wireless router and put that in downstairs."

At first it was just to connect his Tivo, the digital video recorder
that also can direct content from storage (your computer) to output for
audio (your stereo speakers) or video (your TV). Then he hooked in a
laptop, which "became a great productivity tool for my wife, who's
studying for her master's." Then he hooked up his Sony PlayStation so
he could play games online, and later added his Pocket PC hand-held and
Xbox.

Capone-Blake, 43, is a technical writer and editor, but worked in
information technology for years. What she likes best about her
network, which is similar to Antico's but also distributes content from
DVDs and other video sources, is that she can retrieve information from
any PC in her house, no matter where she is, and she can connect to a
second printer if the first one is out of ink or paper. She also likes
sending audio out to her deck, where wireless speakers can pick up
signals almost 100 feet away.

The bulk of her network works on Ethernet cables, rather than with
wi-fi (short for "wireless fidelity" and a play on "hi-fi," a previous
generation's hot new technology). There are several types of wi-fi, but
they are all based on industry standards that let devices speak to each
other without wires.

Capone-Blake said she has reservations about the security of
wireless communications, based on the "fact that I can walk downtown in
the Financial District and start picking up networks" using a hand-held
device.

Rubinson, of Andover, said he has been a computer enthusiast since
he was 9, "but didn't want to end up in a cubicle" working in IT, so he
went into law. But he still revels in the digits: He has combined three
computers, two Tivos, a Palm Tungsten C hand-held, and several printers
into a wireless network. He shares Capone- Blake's concern, and said
his first advice for new networkers would be "to take the time to learn
about setting security properly.

"The manufacturers are selling the equipment so the lay person can
plug it in and go, but people are at substantial risk" if they don't
activate firewalls and other impediments to people who would try to
steal personal information by logging into an unprotected wireless
network, he said.

Rubinson shares recorded programs between his two Tivos, and uses
the devices' Home Media Option, a software add-on, to direct photos
onto his home's video monitors or MP3s onto the home stereo. He also
likes the option of wirelessly syncing the data on his hand-held
organizer with his computer desktop.

Martino, meanwhile, is exploiting his network in ways you would
expect from a software engineer. He's got four computers working,
including a Linux-based file server and a laptop PC. He plays on a
Nintendo Game Cube, has a Replay TV digital video recorder, a Turtle
Beach Audiotron MP3 player, and, to top it off, Internet phone service
from Vonage.

"We still have local telephone service, but just until we can
transfer our number over. Vonage doesn't have our exchange yet, so
until that happens we have the cheapest service possible from Verizon,"
said Martino, 26. Phones plug into devices on the network and calls are
carried on the Internet.

It should come as little surprise that Martino, Rubinson, and the
others don't consider their networks complete; they're eager for a
product's price to come down - Martino's waiting on HDTV, for example -
or for the next technological bar to fall. "I think there's definitely
room for improvement to make these things seamless, so you don't need
any external devices," Rubinson said. "There's a long way to go before
the average Joe can plop one in their house and be up and running."

When that happens, everyone else will join the early adopters.