Raising the Roof on the Digital Home

By Michael Singer

June 22, 2004

UPDATE: More than 140 companies agree on a roadmap to connect various consumer electronics devices.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The job of connecting all the consumer electronics devices in your home is getting a boost with the formation of an alliance of some 145 consumer and electronics companies.

The consortium now known as the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) is an offshoot of the Digital Home Working Group (DHWG), which was forged last year. The group outlined its Digital Home Interoperability Guidelines v1.0 as well as plans for compliance workshops and certification programs at a press event here Tuesday.

Some 60 engineers from various member companies worked on the 204-page specification book, which details everything from use case scenarios to trans-coding to baseline interoperability formats.

The group's work is sorely needed. About 68 percent of the 100 million homes in the U.S. market already have at least one PC in the home, according to Creative Strategies and broadband to the home has increased to about 20 percent of the market. In Japan, Korea and Singapore, well over 50 percent of the homes are already using some type of digital device to access the Internet; the same goes for Scandinavia and the developed countries in Europe.

"As more and more consumers bring digital technology into their homes, the need to move their 'digital stuff' from one device to another will become a major issue but for this market to really take off, the sharing of that digital content between devices must be seamless and extremely easy to set up and actually manage the transfer of that content," Tim Bajarin president of research firm Creative Strategies, told internetnews.com.

Traditionally consumers have been doing it for themselves by patching together one or two vendor devices.

"What we're seeing is two separate camps: a data or PC-based network versus an entertainment network," Jupiter Research Senior Analyst Avi Greengart said. (Jupiter Research and this publication are owned by the same parent company.)

On one hand, Greengart noted that the cable set-top box interface is popular because it has a low upfront cost with an ongoing subscription fee. The service often includes some type of digital recorder or PVR that allows the content to be saved and then distributed. In contrast, media center PCs, say from HP, Gateway, or Dell may have a high upfront cost but offer multiple functions.

"We agree [that] early market success is limited. Only 5 percent of U.S. online households have a flash-based or hard disk-based MP3 player. But consumer interest is strong," said Jupiter Research Vice President and Research Director, Michael Gartenberg. "Streaming music from their PC to their stereo is the number one reason why consumers desire a home network and 51 percent of consumers are interested in recording TV content on their PC but playing back on their TV sets. As interest in digital ubiquity in the home increases, the work of the DLNA to foster standards and reduce technical complexity will help make the vision a reality."

Two companies positioning for the biggest impact on the digital home business are Microsoft and Intel .

Microsoft's XP Media Center was one of the first software operating systems to come up with a unified interface for things like servers, storage, music players, and DVD, all of which could be controlled by remote.

Likewise, Intel has been devoting time and money to beef up its presence in the consumer device space. In the last three months, Intel unveiled platform designs for "Florence," the new category of entertainment PCs expected to be available from OEM suppliers beginning in 2004. In April, Intel and Movielink announced plans to bring first-run movies to home computers and mobile PCs. Intel also teamed up with Dolby Laboratories with plans to bring consumer electronics-quality audio to PCs based on Intel High Definition Audio.

The majority of the support within the industry comes from the component manufacturers with semiconductor manufacturers, content providers, telecom service providers and PC-makers making up the next largest identifiable sectors with vested interests. The United States leads the support by region with more than 53 percent of the group coming from North America. Asia follows closely with 33 percent support and Europe/Middle East/Africa completing the pie.

According to the DHWG, the rest of 2004 will be spent working on the construction of digital rights management content protection with interoperability between platforms targeted for 2005.

As for media formats, the Group mandates that everyone must support the basics: JPEG for images, LPCM (2 channels) for audio, and MPEG-2 for video.

Companies have the option of offering competing formats such as imaging standards GIF, TIFF and PNG; as well as audio/video formats like AAC, AC-3, ATRAC3plus, MP3, Microsoft's WMA9, WMV9, MPEG-1, and MPEG-4. In 2005, the plan is to stand firmly on JPEG2K, and MPEG-4 as the standard.

Currently, the DHWG has agreed on HTTP as the default for media transports and Universal Plug-and-play (UpnP) architecture for device discovery and control. The group is also pushing the next generation of Internet Protocol -- IPv6 -- as the replacement for the current standard.

And when it comes to the Wi-Fi revolution, the Group is keen on building beyond the standard 802.11a,b, and g flavors to include Media Access Control (MAC) support with 802.11e (Quality of Service) and 802.11i (security).

For the rest of the year, the group has said it will take the 1.0 guidelines and conduct interoperability testing on retail products. The group will also sponsor three more touring technical shows by the end of this year in North America, Asia Pacific and Europe to help tout the specification to its membership and interested developers.

Who Has the Key to DRM?

Concerns about copyright protection have been heightened as the Hollywood studios insist on improved digital rights capabilities as we move beyond DVD to the next level of resolution.

"The studios are concerned because the technology is close enough now to the mastered D5 copy which lets you do other things to it," Greengart said.

Microsoft is pitching standards like High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) to make sure that the technologies don't complicate things and users can move data between devices. This is meant to help them understand the breadth of their rights and keep it simple.

The group is considering other rights languages besides HDMI. They include High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection, Extensible Rights Markup Language (XRML) and Digital Property Rights Language (DPRL). But the furthest ahead and the one with the best chance at winning is MPEG-21.

"The people behind XMCL thought that it would be merged into something else but never really went anywhere," DHWG member and Content Guard CEO Michael Miron recently told internetnews.com. "There is also Open Digital Rights Language -- or ODRL -- from Australia. Head to head, it's the only competition with MPEG that had a choice, but they lost head to head."

MPEG-21 is based on two essential concepts: the definition of a fundamental unit of distribution and transaction (the Digital Item) and the concept of Users interacting with Digital Items. The Digital Items can be considered the "what" of the Multimedia Framework (e.g., a video collection, a music album) and the Users can be considered the "who" of the Multimedia Framework.

Miron said the mathematical breakdown of DRM/CP leaves itself wide open for ambiguities.

"The last thing you want is ambiguities," Miron said. "If I say you have the right to play this song once, you know what I mean. But when you give that instruction to a machine, does it mean it gets to play it only one time, or does it mean one time on only this machine, or does it mean one time on several machines?"

The group behind MPEG-21 said it makes things clearer by defining the syntax and semantics of their characteristics, such as interfaces to the elements, "in an efficient, transparent and interoperable way."

The technology is showing such advanced promise that at its Annual Meeting in Montreal last month, the MPEG-4 Industry Forum (M4IF) unanimously approved expanding its scope to include the promotion of the MPEG-7 and MPEG-21 standards. The group has also changed its name to the "MPEG Industry Forum."

DHWG says any format it chooses must be an open standard that has been formally ratified by an internationally recognized standards organization, and IP must be licensed under reasonable, non-discriminatory terms.

Given that criterion, Miron says MPEG-21 may have the best chance.



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