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RealTime IT News

No Lock on the Door at Digital Home

An industry movement to standardize the way you link your PC to your MP3 player to your television is ironically going forward without a clear sense of how to protect the content in the first place.

And it seems like the biggest names in tech are waiting for the problem to fix itself.

According to industry statistics, massive numbers of households are networking their homes to be able to take Internet content like music, movies and photos and play them back on multiple devices.

According to a Jupiter Research Home Networking Report, one-third of broadband users are interested in installing a home network to listen to music files on a home stereo.

Furthermore, Parks Associates forecasts a five-fold increase in products connected in entertainment-centric home networks by the end of 2007. The report estimates there will be 35 million nodes in U.S. homes by the end of the year; 65 million in 2004; 95 million in 2005; 136 million in 2006; and 183 million in 2007.

The trend sparked a 17-company initiative to ensure interoperability among CE devices, PCs, and mobile devices. Dubbed the Digital Home Working Group (DHWG), the non-profit organization says it will build a platform based on certain technical design guidelines using industry standards.

"Consumers are acquiring, experiencing, and managing an increasing amount of digital media using their digital consumer electronics (CE) devices, home PCs, and mobile devices such as PDAs and mobile phones," the group states in its literature.

Using the standard interoperability platform, the DHWG promises manufacturers will then be able to use the specs to develop digital home products that share content through wired or wireless networks in the home.

But the one thing deemed so important to content providers, the recording industry and the movie industry -- Digital Rights Management and Content Protection (DRM/CP) -- is the only thing on the group's list of technologies that has no suggestions and no apparent roadmap.

The reason, according to Content Guard CEO Michael Miron: they haven't decided on a standard -- yet.

DRM is important, but there are still proprietary DRM platforms and if you have different proprietary solutions, you have a tower of Babel, Miron told internetnews.com. "The group will get to it but it doesn't want to duplicate efforts.

Miron should know, his company is one of a handful working to bring a standard digital rights expression language to the industry. The Bethesda, MD-based company is working with standards bodies such as MPEG, OASIS and Open eBook Forum (OeBF) to encourage cooperation on technologies.

DHWG's membership reads like a "Who's, Who" of tech giants, including: Fujitsu, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, IBM, Kenwood, Lenovo, Matsushita Electric (Panasonic), Microsoft, NEC CustomTechnica, Nokia, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, STMicroelectronics and Thomson.

But Miron says getting all of those companies to agree on one standard is not really all that critical at this point because the group's roadmap for DRM/CP doesn't hit a critical point until the 2005-2006 timeframe.

"They're on a pretty ambitious schedule," Miron says. "Right now they are looking on how to how to combine things into an implementation stack. Each piece is out there, but without the guts, then you don't have the reason to protect the content."

So what will be the dominant technology to rule them all? Miron thinks he knows.

MPEG May Hold the Key
There are a bunch of different rights languages available, including High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP), eXtensible rights Markup Language (XRML) and Digital Property Rights Language (DPRL), but Miron says 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," said Miron. "There is also Open Digital Rights Language -- or ODRL -- from Australia. Head to head, its the only competition with MPEG that had a chance, 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 says the mathematical breakdown of DRM/CP leaves itself wide open for ambiguities.

"The last thing you want is ambiguities," Miron says. "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 says 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.