Drafting Blueprints for the Digital Home

Networking PCs, TVs and sound systems is getting easier, but behind-the-scenes power plays threaten to undermine the digital home’s foundation.

Recent trade shows (Microsoft’s WinHEC and Networld + Interop) highlighted the progress in the area, but security, interoperability and connectivity, and digital rights loom as stumbling blocks. And as broadband continues to penetrate home offices and small businesses, users are demanding more from their networks.

“Once consumers set up a network for one function, then they try to see what else they can do with it,” said Avi Greengart, a senior analyst with Jupiter Research, which is owned by the same company as this site.

Greengart said there are two digital home set-ups: a data or PC-based network and an entertainment network.

The cable set-top box interface has been popular because of low up-front cost. The service often includes a digital recorder so content can be saved and distributed. By contrast, media center PCs, from HP , Gateway or Dell , have higher up-front costs but offer multiple functions.

Other firms, including Fujitsu, IBM, Kenwood, Lenovo, Panasonic, NEC CustomTechnica, Nokia, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, STMicroelectronics and Thomson are playing important roles.

The companies that stand to make the biggest impact on the digital home business are Microsoft and Intel . During his keynote last week, Bill Gates talked about the blurring lines between PCs, videogames, set-top-boxes and phones.

“Every one of those boundaries will be broken down by having the software connectivity and having the user’s state move seamlessly between those different devices,” Gates said. “Conquering those scenarios, making those very simple, is quite important to us.”

Microsoft said its next-generation OS (Longhorn), with its 64-bit processing support, new file-management system and 3-D graphics, could push hardware sales.

Jim Allchin, Microsoft vice president of platforms, said the company will integrate Longhorn with three “magic ingredients”: Win FS, the storage system; Indigo, the messaging infrastructure based on Web services; and Avalon, the graphics enabler. Each one is expected to help facilitate digital content from platform to platform.

Greengart also points to the success of Microsoft’s XP Media Center, one of the first operating systems with a unified interface for servers, storage, music players and DVD –all of which could be controlled by remote.

Likewise, Intel has been focusing on consumer devices. It recently unveiled designs for “Florence,” a new category of entertainment PC expected to ship later this year. Last month, Intel and Movielink announced plans to bring first-run movies to PCs. Intel also teamed with Dolby Laboratories and plans to bring consumer electronics-quality audio to PCs based on Intel High Definition Audio.

With Microsoft and others, the chipmaking giant also founded the Digital Home Working Group (DHWG). The nonprofit is looking at standards for products that share content through home networks, while protecting the content from piracy.

Intel COO Paul Otellini said the group should publish its specifications June 1, with products based on DHWG 1.0 appearing in the fourth quarter. Products with the new Digital Transmission Content Protection spec are expected in the second half of this year.

Security

Security remains the top issue with manufacturers, though consumers seem apathetic. Greengart said most home networks, especially wireless ones, are not secure. “It is one of the primary issues in the enterprise but consumers don’t seem to care,” he said.

One effort underway is the IEEE 802.11i, a wireless spec that promises to improve Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) and Robust Security Network (RSN) standards. Another standard — 802.11n — could also be pervasive in Media Centers. Intel CTO Pat Gelsinger said the company is watching the spec that promises a high-throughput WLAN, but won’t commit to putting it in chipsets until its finalized in late 2005 or 2006.

Another technology being implemented is Internet protocol IPSec . Being able to take high-speed networks and do a lot of the isolation work at the hardware level is very important.

“Verifying who’s trying to make the connection, that’s part of the isolation story that we’re explaining now in a very crisp way to corporate customers,” Allchin said. “And so you’ll see a very high percentage of the network traffic use IPSec and so that kind of offload becomes important.”

Microsoft said the increased importance on media streaming has it and other companies trying to come up with answers to understanding how to prioritize traffic.

“Which packets are more important than the others? What happens if you drop packets? Do you keep trying to resend them or should you just give up on, say, some video packets that you were unable to send?” Allchin pondered. “Getting the different parts of the stack to understand this is pretty important and yet doing it in a way that the security of the intellectual property, the ease of setup, the ease of diagnosing errors.”

Interoperability

Should this device connect to that one, and how do you authenticate that? Microsoft’s cure-all is a unified architecture that is built up from the plug-and-play level through higher levels of Web services .

The company now supports the Devices Profile for Web Services, which was co-authored by Intel and printer manufacturers Lexmark and Ricoh.

“We want to create a device profile that we want for Web services that we’re going to provide to the [Universal Plug and Play] Forum and we hope that they will adopt it as the next standard for UP&P 2.0,” Gates said.

So what else is Microsoft doing with Web services? How about being able to take location information and have automatic behavior based on that, getting GPS detection built-in? The company said XML-based specs could also be used to sniff for high bandwidth networks and bring down a lot of information and cache that so that devices use less capacity or where you might even be offline.

For problems and potential fixes for conectivity and digital rights, see page 2.

Connectivity

In a word, the home automation world is a mess. Greengart points to two tiers. The first is a standalone system that the consumer jury-rigs such as a dimmer control that does only one thing. The solution is piecemeal and ends up with several remote controllers that need a specific sequence to operate.

“And then you have a huge gap until you come to custom installations that can run you into the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. “I’ve seen some systems that react to a cell call that then goes to server in the house and turns the lights on, starts the hot-tub . . . very much for lifestyles of the rich and famous.”

Greengart said there are many companies trying to fill in the gap. What has been telling in the last week is Microsoft’ decision to cease its production of Wi-Fi networking hardware such as access points. Despite success with wireless keyboards and mice, the company said it would instead redouble its efforts into putting Wi-Fi in other future hardware devices.

Digital Rights Management

Concerns about copyright protection have been heightened as the Hollywood studios insist on improved digital rights capabilities as we move beyond DVD to the next level of resolution.

“The studios are concerned because the technology is close enough now to the mastered D5 copy which lets you do other things to it,” Greengart said.

Microsoft is pitching standards like High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) to make sure that the technologies don’t complicate things and users can move data between devices, understand the breadth of their rights and we keep it simple.

Besides HDMI, other rights languages being considered, include High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection, Extensible Rights Markup Language (XRML) and Digital Property Rights Language (DPRL). But 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,” DHWG member and Content Guard CEO Michael Miron told internetnews.com. “There is also Open Digital Rights Language — or ODRL — from Australia. Head to head, its the only competition with MPEG that had a choice, 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.

“If I say you have the right to play this song once, you know what I mean,” Miron said. “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, Miron says MPEG-21 may have the best chance.

For consumers and IT firms, the best chance for reaping the benefits of the digital home in the future, is to agree on standards now.

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