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HDMI testing by Silicon Image subsidiary under fire

Posted: 31 Jul 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Silicon Image subsidiary? HDMI interoperability testing? SimplayHD?

A subsidiary of the chip vendor that invented HDMI has seized the opportunity to turn the industrywide problem of entertainment systems interoperability into a profit center. Now its year-old test program, touted at introduction as a much-needed de facto standard regime for CE interoperability, is under fire by some who say it is a little more than a costly feel-good seal of approval.

Silicon Image Inc. unit Simplay Labs LLC created the SimplayHD Compatibility Test Specification to test High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) functionality in conjunction with HDMI for CE OEMs. The program also offers compatibility testing among devices from different vendors. The company offers OEMs that pass the test a SimplayHD certification logo. While SimplayHD is an elective service for OEMs, Simplay Labs has told OEMs that big-box retailers such as Best Buy will recommend products with the SimplayHD logo over competing offerings.

Some CE vendors immediately embraced the SimplayHD testing program, but in recent months a number of companies have begun to question the lab's testing practices. The concerns cited include a lack of publicly available documented information on SimplayHD testing procedures and pass/fail criteria; long waiting periods for getting a system tested; and "extortionate" pricing for each test!15,000 for each HDMI-equipped digital entertainment "source" system, such as an HDTV or DVD player.

Unclear criteria
"Several customers in Taiwan, China and Korea are having difficulty completing SimplayHD testing," said Doug Bartow, strategic marketing manager for the advanced-TV segment at Analog Devices Inc. Without full disclosure of how the SimplayHD tests are conducted and what the pass/fail criteria are, "our customers are unable to correct the problem, let alone understand the nature of the problem," Bartow said.

A year ago, the absence of coordinated HDCP/HDMI testing posed a huge problem for the industry. In some cases, even HDMI products already certified by HDMI's authorized test centers would not function correctly without properly implementing HDCP, an Intel-developed digital content protection technology that controls content as it crosses HDMI connections.

Since that time, industry groups HDMI LLC and Digital Content Protection LLC (DCP), which promote compliance with DMI and HDCP specifications, have fielded more-comprehensive certification procedures and industrywide HDCP "plug" tests under the aegis of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). Those expanded efforts have some critics of the SimplayHD program questioning why Simplay's additional testing is even necessary.

Simplay Labs insists it's not trying to compete with HDMI LLC or DCP LLC; in fact, Simplay requires a product to be certified HDMI- and HDCP-compliant before it undergoes SimplayHD testing. But HDMI- and HDCP-authorized test centers offer "only a subset of what we provide," said Joseph Lias, president of Simplay Labs LLC.

The other programs test primarily for compliance with electrical specs and content protection protocols, he said, while Simplay offers "all of that, plus performance and robustness testing based on applications and a variety of usage scenarios."

CEA hosts a "plugfest" to test for interoperability among different vendors' gear, but that event "only happens once or twice a year" and is "based on prototype equipment," said Lias. "We offer our plug tests continuously against commercial products."

Moreover, under HDMI procedures, once a vendor achieves HDMI certification for one product, its further offerings do not have to be tested, Lias said. Simplay, by contrasts, tests and certifies "each and every product."

'Peace of mind'
Richard Doherty, president of The Envisioneering Group, called the SimplayHD program peace of mind for OEMs. "You, as an OEM, have probably already had your retailers tell you that they are concerned" as the number of customer complaints about HDMI equipment has risen along with the variety of available HDMI offerings, he said.

But Doherty acknowledged that SimplayHD may lull!or gull!vendors into complacency. "Simplay is basically like purchasing 'title insurance' to get peace of mind that you will have clear title when you buy a property. Yet title insurance companies 'pay off' to clear a house claim when they have messed up. [If a certified product doesn't work,] Simplay says, 'We tried.'"

Granted, interoperability robustness is not easy to measure, and there is an infinite number of ways for consumers to mistakenly operate or plug together various products. Simplay's Lias acknowledged that although his company already offers 380 tests based on different usage scenarios, the number of tests it runs is "constantly increasing."

Max Winebrenner, senior product manager for Acoustic Research at Audiovox Accessories, said "marketing decisions" drove his company to have its cables certified by Simplay. "We wanted to take doubt out of buyers' minds," Winebrenner said. "We also wanted to get a leg up on competitors."

Not everyone has bought into SimplayHD, however. While Mitsubishi, Samsung, LG, Sharp, Yamaha, JVC, Scientific-Atlanta and Pace Micro are among the vendors offering products with the SimplayHD logo, neither Sony nor Matsushita has elected to order SimplayHD test services.

A Matsushita spokesman said his company uses an internal lab "to ensure interoperability of HDMI-related devices."

Simplay's Lias speculated that "elite members of the consumer electronics industry have enough clout among big-box retailers" that they may not feel as pressured as others to go the extra mile of SimplayHD testing.

But he insisted that even the elite vendors appreciate the issues.

"HDMI LLC has recognized the interoperability problem," Lias said, but that organization's by-laws stipulate that any changes in procedure must be approved by "a unanimous decision" among founding members Hitachi, Matsushita, Philips, Sony, Thomson, Toshiba and Silicon Image. That caveat motivated Silicon Image to set up Simplay Labs as an additional, elective interoperability test forum.

Lias said dealers, retailers and service providers are increasingly conceding the value of SimplayHD. "BSkyB, for example, put a SimplayHD requirement in its recent RFQ," he said.

But naysayers ask why a chip company's subsidiary, rather than an independently verified underwriters' lab or a broader industry group, should be trusted to run an important interoperability test protocol. Some have suggested Simplay Labs was set up to divert attention from Silicon Image and assure that no big-box retailers snatch the interoperability reins from SI, the leading HDMI chip vendor by market share.

Underming CEA
Others suggest CEA has dropped the ball on interoperability or allowed Simply to undermine its role. A CEA spokeswoman said, "We don't have anyone in our technology and standards department comfortable speaking on this issue."

Some participants in April's CEA 861/HDCP Plugfest in Milpitas, Calif., noted that Silicon Image was conspicuously absent from the event.

Lias countered!and other sources acknowledged!that Simplay Labs "sponsored lunch during that plugfest." But Simplay Labs provided no equipment or products for evaluation.

Meanwhile, CE manufacturers continue to struggle!at no small cost!to obtain SimplayHD certification. Beyond the initial standard testing fee, Simplay Labs charges OEMs for resubmission of a a product for testing if it fails the first time. Because the SimplayHD logo is assigned product by product, rather than for a vendor's full line, OEMs that buy Simplay's service have to keep buying as they develop new products.

More important, although Simplay Labs claims it offers OEMs a detailed report on failure analysis in addition to pretest tools, some OEMs say that they can't recreate the SimplayHD testing procedure to examine and correct their alleged interoperability problems.

"Their testing is not repeatable and not predictable," said an OEM source who spoke to EE Times on the condition of anonymity.

Simplay Labs' response is that OEMs can always elect to purchase Simplay consulting services if they need extra help.

ADI, the market's second-largest supplier of HDMI interface chips, noted that it offers its customers a full range of service and technical support, including board layout, software drivers and precompliance testing. "We give our customers full reports if there are any issues with their products. We work with our customers," Bartow said.

But even ADI, already equipped with full testing gear and banks of the latest equipment, can't help its customers without publicly available materials documenting Simplay Labs' procedures and criteria.

"Analog Devices is a strong industry-standard supporter," Bartow said. "If there is any evidence that Simplay Labs' tests improve HDMI, we'd like to see those requirements added to HDMI/HDCP certifications, without restrictions."

Retailer push
Best Buy originally saw SimplayHD testing as a way to alleviate "inconsistent implementation" of HDMI and demanded proof and certification of SimplayHD testing. A spokesman at Best Buy said SimplayHD is "a recommended testing facility because they have robust capabilities for testing including cross-vendor plug-and-play tests."

But when it was pointed out that Best Buy also carries products without the SimplayHD logo, he said that Best Buy also accepts products certified by HDMI-authorized testing centers. "We do not give marketing in-store, or 'Blue Shirt,' preference to Simplay-tested products," he said.

That may not be the whole truth. When a reporter dropped into a Best Buy on Long Island, N.Y., U.S.A. last week and asked about Simplay-tested products, a Blue Shirt named Rich!fresh from an all-day Simplay/Best Buy training seminar!said, "We will recommend Simplay now that we had the training yesterday." Asked why products with the SimplayHD logo are better, he said, "It's like a USDA logo on beef. It's verified by an independent testing outfit."

Again, that's not the whole truth. Simplay Labs, a Silicon Image subsidiary, is hardly independent.

- Junko Yoshida
EE Times

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