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Getting the boxes to interplay

Posted: 16 Feb 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Rick Merritt? Spencer Chin? digital rights management? DRM? HD-DVD?

At the recent International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the industry wowed visitors with gadgets designed to seduce the senses. But beneath the flashy veneer of the electronics lies a tangled mass of interoperability problems and related concerns.

Digital rights management (DRM) remains foremost on the minds of many, as content providers and others dig in their heels to protect their IP. Also unresolved is the struggle between the HD-DVD and Blu-ray camps for control of the next-generation optical-disk format.

Interoperability is the Gordian knot that links the various concerns. "There are issues across the board," said Mark Kirstein, VP of multimedia content and services for iSuppli Corp. "Interoperability is an enormous issue. It has legs in all directions."

There has been some positive movement on that front. The High-Definition Audio-Video Network Alliance is hacking away at the rat's nest of wiring required to connect high-definition A/V equipment, working toward a protocol to allow single-cable connections. The Universal Display Interfaces Special Interest Group, meanwhile, is working on a video standard usable with both next-generation PCs and HDTVs.

There are also signs of progress on the DRM front. The Coral Consortium, a group of about 40 companies, claims it will release a final specification by June for a standard way to let diverse DRM systems share protected content. But the consortium is not sure when it will finish its next job: defining and implementing tests to verify that systems comply with the specs.

Roles, interfaces defined
Coral's first draft spec has been available since March under non-disclosure terms. It creates a model or template of the rights for using content acquired on one device and its associated DRM scheme, so that those rights can be transferred in a trusted manner to another device and DRM. The spec defines roles, interfaces and a trusted messaging mechanism.

A second draft spec will be released soon that "tightens up definitions of some of the roles and messaging infrastructure" and layers on definitions of usage models, said Jack Lacy, president of Coral and VP of standards for DRM developer Intertrust Technologies Corp.

Coral's approach will not require new hardware or any particular rights-expression language, Lacy said. But the group must define a set of conformance requirements and test procedures to ensure that devices adhere to the spec. Whether Coral should set up a service agency to manage testing and act as a rights clearinghouse "is being debated," said Lacy.

The good news is that "it's possible to start working on commercial products now, based on the draft specifications," said Scott Smyers, a VP of Sony Electronics Inc. and a Coral member.

Smyers is also president of the 150-plus-member Digital Living Network Alliance. DLNA runs a product logo program based on its interoperability guidelines, which reference open standards. By April, the alliance will put its weight behind one or more link-level copy-protection schemes, probably including Digital Transmission Content Protection (DTCP) over Internet Protocol. The group, which claims that 11 systems conform to its basic 1.0 guidelines for consumer interoperability, is at work on a next-generation spec that may ultimately reference the Coral group's work on DRM.

Industry efforts
In November, Europe's Digital Video Broadcast Project announced its first steps toward defining a comprehensive copy-protection scheme under its standard. The group launched three specs and is expected to release two more soon. Those will be followed by an effort to define the royalty terms under which the project's technology can be used.

Smyers said the DVB work is encouraging, but may be limited to systems using the DVB standard, while the Coral work deals with any digital consumer system. Nevertheless, because many of the same companies sit on Coral, DVB and DLNA, he sees cross-fertilization among the efforts.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) joined all three groups last year "to make sure there is some consistency" among them, said Brad Hunt, CTO of the MPAA. Hunt noted that a number of networked DVD players are about to emerge using DTCP-over-IP copy protection.

But others expressed skepticism about the various industry efforts. "We don't see much light at the end of this tunnel. There are efforts out there, but they aren't making much progress," said Van Baker, a consumer analyst for market watcher Gartner Dataquest. "Vendors are determined to monetize their own assets through proprietary technologies." He criticized Coral specifically because the group does not include the top two industry playersApple Computer Inc., whose FairPlay DRM is used in the iPod, and Microsoft Corp., with its Windows Media DRM.

But Coral's Lacy countered that "you have to start somewhere." Even without Microsoft's participation, he said, Coral's work could be applied at the service level because service providers using Windows Media have the power to change and issue users' DRM licenses as needed.

The ultimate solution could require a realignment of the consumer industry from vertically oriented companies to a more horizontal structure in which different companies handle different pieces of the problem. That would make the consumer sector look more like the computer industry, said Mike Buckley, a director at Intel Capital, which manages a $200 million consumer fund.

In the meantime, "we are seeing a daily stream of ad hoc announcements between content providers and device makers," said Michael Gaumond, general manager of Motorola Inc.'s Connected Home Solutions group. He pointed to Apple's deals with Disney and NBC for licensing TV shows for viewing on the Video iPod, as well as Apple's deals to make the digital version of Madonna's catalog exclusive to Apple's iPod and FairPlay DRM.

Another bugaboo for the digital living room is the home network itself. Today, the industry has a host of open and proprietary nets for phone lines, coaxial cables, power lines and wireless. None can be automatically configured for technophobes.

"The glue that holds all this together is home networking and it stinks," said Gartner's Baker. "If home networking stays like it is, it will stall at 30 percent penetration."

The High-Definition Audio-Video Network Alliance hopes to change that. Comprising media content providers, consumer electronics suppliers and IT companies, HANA is creating a high-level design protocol to connect HDTVs, A/V hard drives, personal video recorders and other gear via a single IEEE 1394 cable.

"We've all dealt with that rat's nest of wire behind our home entertainment centers," said Bruce Watkins, president and COO of HANA member Pulse-Link Inc. The alliance's concept would let consumers use one remote control per room to regulate all A/V functions. Customers could share personal content between IT and A/V networks, but commercial HD content would be protected. HANA is working with the Consumer Electronics Association, 1394 Trade Association, CableLabs, MPAA and others to safeguard DRM.

Also emerging is the Unified Display Interface, developed by a consortium of companies, including principal members Apple, Intel Corp., LG Electronics, National Semiconductor Corp., Samsung Electronics and Silicon Image Inc. UDI will be compatible with the High-Definition Multimedia Interface, the standard digital interface for HDTVs and advanced consumer electronics displays.

"We're talking about a PC with a single connector that can hook up HDTVs," said Joe Lee, director of product marketing for PC/display products at Silicon Image, which helped develop the interface. "It is a just a matter a time before people replace set-top boxes with PCs capable of playing TV signals."

- Rick Merritt and Spencer Chin
EE Times

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