MANHASSET, N.Y. The many players in today's consumer electronics industry share a vision of digital entertainment content flowing easily across all manner of networked products. But delivering on that vision is the challenge for 2007 and beyond, thanks to a plethora of network and content-protection technologies.
As hundreds of companies and thousands of attendees crowd into Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show next week, the big buzz will be on moving content from system to system and place to place. Peter Barrett, chief technology officer at Microsoft TV, calls this trend "building [the] connected-entertainment experience."
"We've been talking about this kind of content exchanging for years, and at this CES we'll see it materialize," said Jack Buser, director and worldwide technology evangelist at Dolby Laboratories Inc. (San Francisco). "People want this great entertainment, but they want it on their own terms. They want it wherever they are."
Two forces are driving the move to connect: Consumers are embracing broadband links to the Internet just as OEMs are delivering networked digital consumer products.
"As a result, there will be an enormous array of offerings to get content around the home," said Scott Smyers, vice president of network systems architecture at Sony Electronics Inc. and chairman of the Digital Living Network Alliance, a 300-member industry group pursuing interoperability in home networking.
Indeed, consumers are sharing digital entertainment content as never before. The rise of YouTube and other Internet sites based on user-generated videos and social networking is making that fact clear even for the traditional media-delivery types.
"Consumers want content exchange between mobile, Internet and broadcast," said Christos Lagomichos, corporate vice president for the home entertainment and displays group at STMicroelectronics.
The good news is that Internet Protocol is everywhere. "IP will be a key part of giving consumers more control and more choice in their entertainment--and we are just at the beginning," said Microsoft's Barrett.
The problem is that the various content, service and system owners all want a say about what IP networks the content rides on and what kind of content protection those nets use.
It's a heady mix of players including Hollywood studios; cable and satellite TV providers; cellular carriers; traditional telcos; consumer, computer and communications OEMs; and chip makers, among others. Every player in every industry is looking for its own silver bulletan optimal software/hardware platform that gives its own content or devices the edge, and guarantees a piece of the action every time content is moved.
The complexity has spawned fragmentation in two core areas: home networks, where there are too many choices with no clear winners, and digital rights management, where there is little market momentum for anything beyond Microsoft's solution, used broadly in PCs, and Apple's FairPlay in the ubiquitous iPod.
Securing the content
Most observers believe the industry will struggle with an increasing number of proprietary digital rights management (DRM) schemes for a long time. However, many see the Windows Media DRM gaining momentum as a de facto standard due to its widespread use in PCs, a prospect some industry observers and consumer OEMs said they find "too frightening."
"We don't see progress in DRM standardization," said Lagomichos of ST. "There is no interoperability, because that's how service providerssuch as satellite operatorswant it to be, as they operate in a closed environment." But when it comes to PCs, "Microsoft's DRM is the most common DRM," he added.
"Microsoft is already way ahead of everyone else," concurred Richard Green, president and CEO at Cable Television Laboratories (Louisville, Colo.), an R&D consortium for cable operators. He does not see one DRM emerging anytime soon.
Menno Kleingeld, senior marketing director of set-top-box and home media devices for NXP Semiconductors, noted that Chinese manufacturers are organizing a DRM standard.
"There's no escaping" the fact that companies in the rest of the world will have no choice but to create a common DRM standard, Kleingeld said. "I am optimistic that something will happen. Whether it is in the next year is a bit unclear. But there is no choice, basically."
Sony's Smyers said that the ad hoc Coral Consortium has already released a specification for passing content between different DRMs. Thus, he considers the DRM interoperability problem solved. "The technology already exists. It's just a convention for orchestrating multiple services," Smyers said.
However, the Coral approach has yet to be implemented in products that are shipping. "In some cases, people may need to develop business rules for things like content that people have already purchased. But from a deployment perspective, it's [an open] question" who will use the technology and when, Smyers added.
Green of Cable Labs said the cable industry has been "pretty carefully" watching the Coral Consortium's work. Describing the consortium's progress as "slow-moving," Green said that the "multi-industry, multimanufacturer" initiative is not so easy to pull off "unless there is a huge market driver."
Stu Lipoff, partner at analyst firm IP Action Partners (Newton, Mass.), expects that "a common DRM for all services and all consumer delivery platforms will come long after 2007." Predicting a phased-in approach, Lipoff said, "I expect DRMs for Internet content downloads will continue to be proprietary for clusters of devices."
The first step toward a common DRM will be for content servers to support multiple DRMs, he said. The second step will likely mirror the next-generation cable set-tops, in that devices--starting with PCs--will support multiple DRMs. In the end, consumers only care that they can get the content they want on a range of devices and move it between them. For that, "you don't need a common DRM," Lipoff said.
Networking the home
Despite the rise of 802.11n broadband wireless links in 2007, Wi-Fi will be no panacea for the digital home. Other wired and wireless solutions will come on strong this year. They include coax-based approaches from the Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) and Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA), the power line-based HomePlug 2.0 and various flavors of ultrawideband.
Lipoff noted that supporting whole-house networking on the order of 160 feet with data rates of 200 to 540 Mbits/ second makes 802.11n "a very attractive candidate for home media networking capable of carrying multiple HD [high-definition] video channels."
But Lipoff cautioned that in some cases, the RF pathway required by 802.11n will not work due to shielding by walls, interference from other sources or just long distances.
Indeed, "11n will make streaming audio better and video possible--as long as you are not using your microwave," said Smyers of Sony, who spent years promoting 1394 as a unified home net. "But I still think the digital home will be a heterogeneous environment, and no one physical layer will win."
ST's Lagomichos predicted that cable and satellite operators are likely to prefer wired technologies such as MoCA in the United States and HomePlug in Europe. IPTV operators may pursue wireless solutions such as 802.11n more aggressively, he said, but "reliability for HD signals is an issue."
Daniel Marotta, group vice president of Broadcom Corp.'s communications group, predicted that 802.11n will emerge as a critical technology for home networking. "The speed that .11n brings and the additional bandwidth are going to be key for some wireless delivery options that weren't previously possible," he said.
According to NXP's Kleingeld, 802.11n is one of several standards that will be used to enable home networking. "Eventually it doesn't really make a difference what standard is being used," he said, adding that consumers clearly don't want to add more wires. Thus, the solution either needs to make use of existing wires, through technologies such as HomePlug, or be wireless, like 802.11n.
The service providers are calling the shots in home networking for set-top-box makers, who see themselves as agnostic, said Dave Davies, vice president of strategy and product marketing for Scientific-Atlanta's digital set-tops. "The cable op- erators are more interested in MoCA, the telcos focus on MoCA and HomePNA-over-coax, and others are thinking about HomePlug," said Davies. "So we'll see multiple flavors of home networks in 2007."
However, service providers see wireless as expensive, insecure and unreliable. They fear costly service calls due to routine interference as well as thefts of service from apartment owners picking up a neighbor's wireless TV signals. Thus, Scientific-Atlanta has no plans to integrate any wireless networking in its set-tops this year, though it does already sell Wi-Fi peripherals that attach via USB.
"I personally see wired nets taking off in 2007. They will definitely start shipping in volume, but no one will be in the tens of millions for the next couple of years," said John Hussey, vice president of the high-speed signal-processing group at Analog Devices.