A group of major consumer-electronics and software providers last week announced a new consortium aimed at tidying up the messy home networking scene.
The big question now: Will the group's home design clash with cable's technology furniture?
With 17 initial members — including IBM Corp., Intel Corp., Microsoft Corp., Sony Corp. and Thomson Multimedia — the Digital Home Working Group will try to come up with device-interoperability guidelines based on a slew of Internet and multimedia standards.
From there, the group will test and certify wired and wireless devices including TV sets, set-top boxes, mobile phones and PCs.
The idea is to give consumer products that will interoperate within a home network virtually out of the box.
In a press conference to announce the group, representatives repeatedly pointed to the difficulty in knitting together various devices with home networking systems — even though many are standards-based products.
While many consumers now use home networks successfully, "we have also in our research found a number of people who have tried and frankly given up — because they want the ability but it is just frankly too hard for them to overcome that," said Louis Burns, one of the group's spokesmen and vice president and general manager of Intel's desktop platforms group.
"We need to resolve this as part of this. Interoperability is limited and as a result, when they do get their network working and they want to get two different devices to talk, and they don't work well, they get more skeptical. We need to address that. Interoperability is a must."
Another major factor will be the always-thorny digital-rights management issue. "But obviously, that is an ambitious goal that we cannot attack at the outset," according to Scott Smyers, vice president of Sony's network and systems architecture division.
The group will base its guidelines on open standards, including IP transport protocols, HyperText Transfer Protocol and file formats such as the Moving Picture Experts Group standard. Plans are to publish the first guideline by the end of this year, with beta product testing following in early 2004 and commercial gear hitting the market by the end of that year.
Other companies participating include Fujitsu Corp., Gateway, Hewlett-Packard Corp., Kenwood, Lenovo, Matsushita Electric Corp. (Panasonic), NEC CustomTechnica, Nokia Inc., Philips Consumer Electronics Co., Samsung Electronics America Inc., Sharp Electronics Corp. and STMicroelectronics.
Conspicuously absent from the list of initial members are any broadband network operators, including cable companies — even though the modems they supply sit at the heart of many home networks.
It's also uncertain how the Digital Home Working Group guidelines will interact with the CableHome specifications developed by Cable Television Laboratories Inc.
CableLabs CEO Richard Green took a diplomatic approach, saying the two entities' goals are not divergent.
"I think they are saying the things that we are very interested in — we want open, agreed inter-industry, international standards," Green said. "So in a lot of ways this is the right kind of process. We just assume they didn't have enough space to mention cable."
'Not a conflict'
Nor does the Digital Home Working Group constitute a rival in developing guidelines and certifying gear. Green pointed out that CableLabs already works with several of the DHWG's member companies on cable technology issues, and it interacts with other technical groups, including the Wi-Fi Alliance, ATM Forum and a host of national and international standards organizations.
"I don't look at this as a conflict. In fact, my feeling is that this gives us a contact point — a group to work with," Green said.
That said, it's still unclear how any guidelines the home-networking group might craft would interplay with the CableHome specifications.
"We don't know. It's too early to tell what the relationship to CableHome and this organization will be," Green said. "But obviously, we intend to work together with manufacturers and [information technology] providers. And we have certain needs from the cable side that are different from other industries, and we will bring those into these kinds of forums."
"I think clearly we have a very important role to play in home networking — we've got two very important pipes into the home," he added. "One of them is carrying video and the other carries IP packets. We definitely are intent on being a significant player in that space."