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Digital content issues still unresolved

Posted: 16 Feb 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:CE? consumer electronics? digital entertainment? Internet Protocol? digital rights management?

The many players in today's CE 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.

"The proliferation of formats and the desire to interconnect everything ends up creating a mad scramble," said Bill Bucklen, a segment director for advanced TV at chipmaker Analog Devices Inc. (ADI).

The big buzz at last month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was 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."

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, VP of network systems architecture at Sony Electronics Inc. and chairman of the Digital Living Network Alliance.

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.

The good news is that Internet Protocol (IP) 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.

Every player in every industry is looking for its own silver bullet!an optimal SW/HW 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 (DRM), where there is little market momentum for anything beyond Microsoft's solution, used broadly in PCs, and Apple's FairPlay in the ubiquitous iPod.

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

'Frightening' prospect
Most observers believe the industry will struggle with an increasing number of proprietary 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," remarked Christos Lagomichos, corporate VP for the home entertainment and displays group at STMicroelectronics (ST). "There is no interoperability because that's how service providers!such as satellite operators!want 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.

Menno Kleingeld, senior marketing director of STB and home media devices for NXP Semiconductors, noted that China manufacturers are organizing a DRM standard.

Sony's Smyers said 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.

Stu Lipoff, partner at analyst firm IP Action Partners, 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, Lipoff said. The second step will likely mirror the next-generation cable STBs, 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 pointed out.

Digital home bets
Despite the rise of 802.11n broadband wireless connections in 2007, Wi-Fi will be no panacea for the digital home. Other wired and wireless solutions will come on strong this year.

Lipoff noted that supporting whole-house networking on the order of 160ft with data rates of 200-540Mbps makes 802.11n "a very attractive candidate for home media networking capable of carrying multiple HD 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 PHY will win."

ST's Lagomichos predicted that cable and satellite operators are likely to prefer wired technologies. IPTV operators may pursue wireless solutions such as 802.11n more aggressively, Lagomichos notes, but "reliability for HD signals is an issue."

Daniel Marotta, group VP 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 employed 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 or be wireless, like 802.11n.

Service providers are calling the shots in home networking for STB manufacturers who see themselves as agnostic, said Dave Davies, VP of strategy and product marketing for Scientific-Atlanta's digital STBs.

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.

"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, VP of the high-speed signal-processing group at ADI.

- Junko Yoshida, Rick Merritt, Dylan McGrath
EE Times

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