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Grappling with digital media fragmentation

Posted: 02 Oct 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:home network interoperability? home networking? digital home interoperability? digital media? content delivery?

Pundits debated whether the PC or the TV would rule the digital home. Now, it's clear that both will, along with other gadgets jumping into the mix. The digital house party is getting so crowded that sometimes, even the various interoperability standards don't work together.

It's a time of fragmentation in the transition to digital media. Networking and security standards are fragmented. Linux has many variants, and plenty of nagging issues are still getting sorted out in the remote access and QoS areas.

As the digital home matures, some things will get betterand some may get worse. The difficulty of linking diverse systems will rise as those systems try to enable more user scenarios and thus take on more complexity. "The No. 1 challenge is to enable interoperability across a range of platforms where consumers can enjoy content," said Brendan Traw, CTO of Intel's digital home group.

"There's a huge set of things engineers have to put in placedigital rights management (DRM), media formatsand you have to have all the pieces implemented before the content flows," he said. "If any piece of the puzzle is not present, it doesn't work."

At least three major efforts are trying to address interoperability in the digital homethe Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA), the Universal Plug and Play group (UPnP) and Intel's Networked Media Product Requirements (NMPR). The programs are roughly coordinated, but have their gaps and overlapping areas.

The situation is similar in many other digital-home areas, ranging from security to display interfaces. "It's not clear to our customers which standards will win, so we have to support them all," said Brad Dietrich, CTO of Mediabolic, a maker of middleware that tries to patch together the pieces for consumer systems. "You will not have good interoperability coverage if you just write to the spec," he said.

Plenty of companies like Intel are pushing the envelope by trying to dream up new user scenarios.

Meanwhile, consumer OEMs are moving at a measured pace to digital, networked systems.

"One of the reasons we are seeing more networked consumer devices is that these devices have become computers in their own right," said Scott Smyers, Sony executive and DLNA chair.

Market watcher iSuppli Corp. predicts that shipments of products with integrated wired home-networking technology will rise by more than a factor of 10 in the next four years to hit 223.8 million units in 2010. The 89 percent annual growth contrasts with the more-measured 28.3 percent rise in the better-established wireless networking segment over the same period, iSuppli said.

As digital media rises, so does the number of systems with wired home nets.

As more computer and consumer OEMs plug into the home network, things are getting out of hand. Mediabolic's Dietrich is worried about feature-itis. "Product marketers have to realize that throwing everything together doesn't make the best product," he said. Dietrich's software is used in the Viiv PCs.

Sifting standards
To help make sense of the feeding frenzy, DLNA wants to act as a clearinghouse of digital home standards. The group has finished both a fairly narrow 1.0 and an updated version of what Smyers calls the "network interoperability framework." The group doesn't create new standards, but simply refers to those created by other groups.

Typically, DLNA adopts all the UPnP work, which includes creating application programming interface standards so that systems can work together over home nets. UPnP does endeavor to set new standards where there is none. Ultimately, DLNA aims to take the widest possible scope, filling in gaps left by UPnP and other groups.

"DLNA has done a good job following up on UPnP, which was way too broad and left too much undefined. If two products had UPnP logos, there was no guarantee they would work together at all," said Dietrich of Mediabolic.

But DLNA 1.0 was "pretty narrow," covering only a few user scenarios for limited kinds of devices linking in a point-to-point fashion and sending free, unprotected content, Dietrich noted. An updated version of the spec added support for more devices, such as cellphones, smart remotes, printers, cameras and some optional new-use cases.

'Time-to-market play'
Trying to nudge the pace of progress, Intel created its own suite of interoperability standards with NMPR. The effort was "a time-to-market play. A consensus process like DLNA takes longer than you might like," said Intel's Traw.

With DLNA getting traction, "our focus is to move forward with DLNA as rapidly as possible," he said. "I am not aware of any planned extensions to NMPR." Intel kick-started the process that led to DLNA.

Dietrich noted points of disagreement between NMPR and DLNA. If you implemented NMPR "to the spec," he said, you would have an incompatibility point or two with DLNA.

For its part, UPnP is still hammering on several active issues. Its A/V group is developing standards for broadcasting and synching media from one to many devices in the home. Another group is defining a parameter-based approach to QoS that would augment the UPnP's current approach of simply assigning priority codes to content. And a new effort will try to define an API for getting access to home devices and services via a remote cellphone or PC.

Plenty of other home net interoperability standards exist, but most tend to be narrowly focused on specific technologies or feature sets.

While there is hope for a single set of interoperability and security standards for the digital home, most observers agree the industry is not likely to see a unified version of Linux.

Chip companies providing their own Linux stack like to offer code that's just a little different from their competitors, said Dietrich of Mediabolic.

When security is a big issue, some OEMs prefer a more tightly controlled RTOS, Dietrich added. That's because they fear the open-source nature of Linux exposes them to risk with products like Windows Media DRM, which specifically warns OEMs that they are liable if protected content is compromised.

Construction ahead

Other issues are still being hammered out. DLNA hopes to find a way to reconcile competing approaches from the Consumer Electronics Association, Intel, Microsoft and others for supporting a user interface remotely over a home network.

Dietrich said a similar situation exists for automated Wi-Fi setup configurations. Today, vendors use a mix of approaches, including Buffalo's AOSS, Microsoft's ConnectNow and the simple config in the Wi-Fi standard.

The display interface area is also facing an impasse with multiple incompatible solutions, including the digital visual interface, the high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI), DisplayPort and the unified digital interface (UDI).

Intel's Traw sees the transition to digital display links being completed "in the next few years," although he remains uncertain just how that will be accomplished. Intel currently supports HDMI and UDI.

Finally, consumer OEMs need to review their basic hardware architectures as they head into the digital, networked era.

"The challenge now is for virtually all manufacturers to take a closer look at the systems architecture of their products to make sure they are up to snuff," said Sony's Smyers. "In some cases, the CPU is probably sufficient. In other cases, they may need to bump up a speed grade or to the next-generation part. In terms of memory, a lot of us have gotten by with 8Mbytes for years, but vendors may want to double or even quadruple that."

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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