A new generation of “smart” products will soon make home networks much easier to install and use. Smart products are products that install and configure themselves, automatically work with other products from other companies, and help you obtain service and support more quickly. Smart products are already being offered by ISPs, broadband suppliers, and manufacturers of PCs, networking cards, and other components.

Home networks – containing multiple PCs and printers, entertainment servers, games, and connections to employers’ networks – have certainly made many consumers’ lives easier and more enjoyable. But if you own a home network, you probably have had a glimpse of the dark side.

You may have found that installing new devices and services is a lot more technical than you imagined. Or you may have had difficulty getting help when you’ve had a problem. Or you discovered that a product warranty did not warrant that the product would work with other products in your network.

Customer Frustrations

If so, you are not alone. These are typical customer complaints today, and they are the kinds of problems that smart products actually solve for you – or even prevent in the first place.

To understand why smart products are needed, let’s consider a few typical examples of problems encountered by home network owners. Have any of these ever happened to you or to someone you know?

* You can’t get your PC connected to your network. You took the new router out of its shipping carton, you connected it to the modem, you configured the router, you configured your PC – and nothing happened.
* You want to install a new game, and you learn that you have to open Port 236 (no other port will do!) on your firewall. To do this, you have to go online and to the router manual. And, after your children are finished playing with the game at midnight, you have to remember to close Port 236 so it won’t be a security risk.
* You want to connect with your employer’s virtual private network (VPN). This process requires you to enable some arcane protocols on the router so that they can do the network address translation so that the network knows where your machine is.
* You’d like to install two PCs and share files between them, but your agreement with your broadband supplier entitles you to help with only one PC. The supplier tells you to call Microsoft. Ditto if you want to do remote printing.

These and many other common problems have frustrated even the technically savvy “early adopters” of home networks. But if you are non-technical (like the vast majority of mainstream consumers), you won’t be willing to tolerate these kinds of “industry growing pains.”

Vendors Try to Fill the Service Gap

You see, the basic problem with a network is that it is, well, a network. In a network, hardware devices and software packages from several companies (and don’t forget, different versions, too) have to work together smoothly. But the vendor of a device or software package cannot ensure that its product will work in any possible network configuration.

This is not to say that vendors and service suppliers such as broadband companies don’t try to help. They do. But there are so many combinations of products that these companies can’t possibly support everything and still remain profitable. Vendors try to load their Web sites with information on interoperability questions, but these sites are not always easy to use, adding another layer of complexity to an already complex problem.

At the technology vendor’s help desk, the situation is no better. The help-desk support people are overwhelmed with complexity. These help desks are set up primarily to provide service for the company’s own products or components. Few are equipped to untangle problems caused by the interaction of their products with other vendors’ hardware, or with a specific application. If you’ve ever tried to work through a software application glitch that happened on your Microsoft Windows PC, you know exactly what I mean.

But the home network user does need a lot of support. Unlike businesses, the average homeowner can’t afford to have a full-time system administrator on hand. Also unlike many businesses, home networks are truly “24×7” – in fact, the heaviest usage of home networks may be outside non-traditional business hours.

In short, home networks have created a very wide “service gap.” Customers want service that vendors cannot deliver profitably.

But in a free-enterprise system, such gaps do not last long. So, to fill the service gap, a number of industry providers are offering home networking services that help customers install, connect, and manage their networks. With these comprehensive services, you as the customer are entitled to help that goes far beyond the support for a single product. You get help with the kinds of problems I described earlier.

Because the networking service provider is taking on a greater burden, the provider charges a fee. Smart products and services make these fees profitable for the provider and valuable for the customer.

Customer Bill of Rights

If you are considering a subscription to a home networking service, you should expect and demand three things from your provider:

Installation. When you are installing a PC or multiple PCs – even wireless connections – the company should help you install your hardware, configure it, and make sure it all works together. The company shouldn’t just tell you to call the equipment manufacturer.

Management. When you are adding, changing, or upgrading components on your network, you should expect most of the processes to be “smart” – and automatically guide you through the process. In cases where this is not possible, live assistance should be quick and effective – not painful and slow.

Troubleshooting. If you have a problem with your home network or one of its components, and the problem will not repair itself, the company should be able to help you solve the problem. No matter how many brands are involved, your company should never refer you to another company. If inter-company collaboration is necessary, your company should be able to do that behind the scenes, without bothering you with it.

In general, you want to make sure that you are actually buying comprehensive service for your home network environment – not just a limited menu of specific services. In effect, you don’t want to hear, “We don’t do Windows.”

How Smart Products Will Help

What makes smart products “smart” is intelligent service technology. When this technology is integrated into products, the products can fix themselves before their users even realize that a problem has occurred. That’s about as trouble-free as you can imagine.

Smart products also can identify and solve problems with interconnected products. And, they know how to install themselves with little or no help from the home network user. They configure themselves, discover other devices on the network, and ensure that they will interact correctly. An installation that used to take one to three hours becomes a simple ten-minute job – with less anguish and worry for you. It’s a very guided and simple process.

For example, your broadband provider may have a smart home networking service offered as an addition to the base broadband access. All the provider has to do is enable it when you agree to pay for the service. Then, with a few simple steps, your PC is automatically reconfigured to work with the router.

With smart DSL service, you’ll be able to program the router with your user ID so it can automatically log you on. It will automatically enable such additions as games and VPN support. Adding a device will become a one-click process.

Best of all, smart products and applications help the help desk help you. Even in the cases in which a smart product can’t fix or reconfigure itself (and you have to call for help), the product automatically sends to the help desk a detailed description of the problem, the automatic fixes that have already been tried, and a description of the network configuration in which the product is operating.

That alone will eliminate the first 10 or 20 questions that you have had to answer on a typical service call. With smart products, the help-desk person gets right to the problem, without wasting his time – or yours.

Motive Communications is the leading provider of the intelligent service technology that makes smart products “smart”. Motive is helping technology manufacturers and communications service providers automate service processes and eliminate time-wasting manual work.

Motive was the first software company to offer automated service and support for the specific needs of the home networking customer. Motive’s solutions, targeted at broadband providers, ISPs, retailers, and warranty service companies, enable these companies to offer smart services to consumers for installing, troubleshooting and managing home networks.

So, although Motive is not necessarily visible on your PC or network, it will be there in the background, working to make your home network a pleasure instead of a problem. When you buy products, remember to ask if they are Motive Smart.

To learn more about Motive Smart Products, and what they are doing to help you, visit http://www.motivesmart.com/endusers .

Before joining Motive, Sanjay Castelino was a management consultant with A.T. Kearney, where he developed e-business and risk management strategies for global manufacturers and a nationwide healthcare organization. His background also includes business development and management consulting positions with Silicon Graphics and Andersen Consulting LLP, respectively. At Andersen, he facilitated a customer-management-process re-engineering effort for a nationwide automobile insurance provider and developed a training server application for a telecoms company that lowered training time and costs for customer-service representatives.