A Long Way From the Digital Home

The most powerful names in computing and consumer electronics have joined forces to improve digital media around the home, but Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is skeptical that the effort will yield benefits for consumers.

The dream of the digital home has been embodied by the Gates mansion, skewered in a very funny video by Propel CEO and philanthropist Steve Kirsch, and prototyped by companies such as Microsoft, Intel, Cisco, and Philips. In the latter case, the dwellings are home to a diverse group of futuristic gadgets that seamlessly integrate. The most impressive thing about these homes, however, is not the advanced entertainment or convenience they offer, but that the childrens rooms never have so much as a toy out of place. The cleaning robots have clearly evolved a lot faster than the computing devices!

Providing greater interoperability among digital media devices is the goal of a new industry group announced last week. Decrying open industry standards as "often too flexible," 17 of the worlds best-known computing and consumer electronics companies have teamed up to start the Digital Home Working Group (DHWG). The most surprising participant is the parent company of Legend, Chinas largest PC manufacturer. However, with the average Chinese city-dweller having total financial assets of under $28,000 (probably less than the cost of Bill Gatess doorbell), most Chinese need a digital home like most fish need a Ducati.

Conspicuously absent are Dell, which sells a ton of home PCs, and Apple, which in addition to practically inventing easy home networking in the 80s with LocalTalk, has developed a key technology for dynamically discovering network devices with Rendezvous. In what is one of the most successful examples of bridges between PCs and consumer electronics, Apple and TiVo already use Rendezvous to share images and music through TiVos Home Media Option.

Even though the DHWG claims to seek a framework that includes mobile devices, apart from portable consumer electronics products such as CD players and camcorders, representation from the wireless mainstream is limited to Nokia and possibly Samsung. One early pronouncement from the group is that Wi-Fi is the preferred wireless networking standard for the home. Thank heaven for this enlightenment! I suppose it will next endorse HTML for Web pages.

Camps of Approval

With Microsoft on board, the group has a reasonable shot of success on the PC side of the digital home. For all the grousing about Microsoft, it has a reasonably effective method of promulgating standards such as Universal Plug and Play and USB; it includes them for free and ships a gazillion units of them.

But consumer electronics vendors have a horrible track record of standardizing anything beyond physical components such as DVD media and S-video. A great example is HAVi, another group including the likes of Sony, Matsushita (Panasonic), Philips and Thomson (RCA) that focuses on digital entertainment interoperability. HAVis site proudly lists six products from two companies that support the standard and "hundreds of happy customers."

Furthermore, HAVi isnt the only convergence consortium gone awry. You might expect that the DHWG would "enable a wide spectrum of in-home devices to communicate and collaborate to provide improved services to the occupants of the Digital Home." However, that quote comes from the Web site of the Digital Home Alliance, a group that had its first meeting just over a year ago. DHWG ostensibly has more marquee members than the Digital Home Alliance, but it is unlikely it will be any more successful.

To its favor, the DHWG has a reasonably modest scope. The group seems focused on providing better support for the rendering of digital media on a variety of devices in an inexpensive, convenient way. That said, the usage scenario it portrays in its white paper, in which an expensive home network delivers only choppy video, will probably be solved as increased Wi-Fi adoption brings down its cost and better quality-of-service standards are implemented to improve the performance of high-bandwidth video.

Lets hope that the DHWG, in its quest to reconcile the widely disparate capabilities of various consumer devices, does not create something akin to Bluetooth profiles. These well-intentioned rules for dictating how mobile devices share different kinds of data have led to many of the technologys problems as devices that should be compatible ultimately turn out not to be.

But that probably will never become a significant issue. If the DHWG can create a standard, it may wind up in every copy of Windows via Microsoft and might even be useful for sharing data across PCs, but the consumer electronics companies will utlimately balk at implementing it.

Does the digital home need a new framwork or are existing standards doing the job? E-mail me.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.

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