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Home network still untamed territory

Posted: 16 Feb 2007     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:home network  digital home  HDTV  PAN  consumer electronics 

The home network is the next frontier in electronics. That much is clear from last month's Consumer Electronics Show, brimming with home networking concepts and technologies. But in many respects, the digital home is still untamed territory.

Engineers face historic levels of complexity in building the digital home. Consumers expect both top-notch quality and ease-of- use.

"There's a huge set of things engineers have to put in place—DRM, media formats—and you have to have all the pieces implemented before the content flows," said Brendan Traw, chief technology officer of Intel Corp.'s digital home group. "If any piece of the puzzle is not present, it doesn't work."

What's more, the stakes are high. iSuppli Corp. predicts shipments of products with integrated wired home networking will rise by more than a factor of 10 in the next four years, to hit 223.8 million units in 2010.

But there are no easy pickings in this gold rush. An unprecedented number of players are competing for a piece of the action, and coordination among those would-be architects is minimal.

The ultimate solution could require a realignment of the consumer industry from vertically oriented companies to a more horizontal structure, in which different vendors handle different pieces of the problem.

The following lists down the pitfalls involved in building the digital home.

1. Home networks are hard to use. It's easy enough to prove that home networks are still too complicated—just try using one.

"We've all dealt with that rat's nest of wire behind our home entertainment centres," said Bruce Watkins, president and COO of Pulse-Link Inc. Pulse-Link is one of several companies that joined the High-Definition Audio-Video Network Alliance, hoping to create guidelines that will make it easier to link TVs, digital recorders and storage devices via a single IEEE 1394 cable. The group promises that systems using its approach will emerge this year.

2. There's no one road to quality.—The problem is not a lack of mechanisms to ensure what's called QoS on the home network. On the contrary, there are too many of them.

"Everybody has a different notion of what QoS should be, but if you've got more than one QoS, you haven't got any," said Glen Stone, director of strategy, standards and architecture for Sony Electronics Inc. Many players see the capability of delivering multi-media over a home network as a competitive advantage or core competency. "They fundamentally want to have control over QoS in the home net, because if something goes wrong, people will call them for support," Stone said.

Problems only get worse with the move to HDTV and DVD. "We are focused on the HD experience, and that content really exacerbates the QoS issue," said Gary O'Neall, VP of global set-top development for Motorola Inc.

3. There are too many home nets. Despite the rise of 802.11n broadband wireless links this year, Wi-Fi is no panacea for the digital home. Other wired and wireless solutions will come on strong as well. They include coax-based approaches from the Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA), Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA), power line-based HomePlug 2.0 and various flavours of UWB.

"The cable operators are more interested in MoCA, the telcos focus on MoCA and HomePNA-over-coax, and others are thinking about HomePlug," said Dave Davies, VP of strategy and product marketing for Scientific-Atlanta's digital STBs. "So we'll see multiple flavours of home networks in 2007."

4. Some assembly required. There are at least three new and three traditional approaches to home automation, with plenty of companies backing each.

Much of the home and industrial-control buzz has centred on Zigbee. The open spec got an update last year supporting star and mesh topologies.

Before the ink had dried on the first Zigbee spec, chip and software developer Zensys gathered more than 60 companies into an alliance that's pushing for the adoption of Zensys' Z-Wave wireless protocol in the home automation market.

And before either of those alternatives got off the ground, Smarthome Inc., a large maker and retailer of home automation products, announced Insteon, a hybrid powerline/wireless networking technology claiming to fix the reliability problems of current X-10 home control networks while retaining backward compatibility with them.

5. Clash in the PAN. Short-range personal-area networks (PANs) are every bit as fragmented as their counterparts that try to stretch across an entire home. The main underlying transport networks—Bluetooth and UWB—come in flavours with various protocols running on top of them.

The problem is that everyone has a favourite protocol, and developers differ on the best ideas for making it easy to associate nodes on an ad hoc wireless net. But systems have limited space for all the wide-, local- and personal-area radios and antennas that the new efforts are generating.

6. Too many interconnects, too. The area of dedicated point-to-point connections between consumer systems is also seeing a rising tide of new options, potentially confusing and confounding both system makers and their customers. Once again, the intensity is greatest at the high end, among options to handle the heady bandwidth requirements of HD video.

On the wired side, DisplayPort and the Unified Display Interface are vying to become the standard for a secure digital link in consumer systems and computers. The pair will compete against two digital interfaces already in use: the Digital Visual Interface and HDMI.

On the wireless side, SiBeam announced it has gathered an ad hoc consortium called WirelessHD around its approach using 60GHz radios to deliver up to 5Gbps. SiBeam will compete with companies using UWB to deliver 480Mbps or more over an approach dubbed WirelessHDMI. Then there are start-ups like Amimon, doing proprietary twists with 802.11n to make it HD-ready.

7. No key to secure content. Home networks are built to carry both personal and paid-for content, like songs and movies. But there's no standard way to protect the so-called premium content from being copied and freely distributed.

A whole new category of mainly software security products is growing up around different DRM approaches. Most observers believe the industry will struggle with an increasing number of proprietary solutions for a long time.

Cable and satellite TV companies share some of the blame. They tend to want a single DRM as part of a closed, end-to-end system. That leaves the digital home with one DRM on the PC, another on the iPod and a third on TV content—none of which talk to one another.

8. There's no standard OS. Engineers had hoped to concoct a Linux variant for CE systems, providing an open platform that could lead to greater interoperability among systems on a home network. The OS would need to support digital media, broadband networking and near-real-time response, and do that on an extremely low-cost and low-power budget.

By the middle of last year, developers had pretty much let go of that ambitious goal, settling instead for promoting as much collaboration around Linux as possible.

Some fault chip companies such as Marvell and Broadcom, which provide Linux stacks that are just a little different from those of competitors, in hopes of encouraging OEMs to stick with their chipsets. Microsoft shares some of the blame for making OEMs liable for any compromises of the Windows Media DRM, a legal technicality that scares some system companies away from open-source Linux and into the arms of more tightly controlled RTOS.

9. Interop standards don't interop. Home networks are in such an early stage of development that even the interoperability efforts are still fragmented. At least three major efforts are trying to address interoperability in the digital home—DLNA, the Universal Plug and Play Forum (UPnP) and Intel's Networked Media Product Requirements. The programmes are roughly coordinated, but they have their gaps and areas of overlap.

China's Intelligent Group and Resource Sharing Alliance standards organisation roughly parallels the objectives of UPnP. The two groups have made efforts to work together.

10. Too many cooks in the kitchen—Roll it all together, and one big theme emerges: There are just too many loosely connected players in this rapidly growing field.

The net result: The digital home will face technology fragmentation for some time to come, and that is its biggest hang-up.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times




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