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Content Conundrum

22 Jan, 2004 By: Gary Arlen

Editor's Note: This second article in a three-part series on the fast-moving trends in digital home entertainment looks at the software development in managing and distributing entertainment content throughout the home.

“Too much digital content is still being taken illegally, undermining business models and artistic integrity.”

Those dramatic — but not contrite — words came not from Hollywood or Washington movie or music protectionists, but from Silicon Valley doyenne Carly Fiorina, chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard. In her keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) earlier this month, Fiorina promised that, “HP is stepping up its commitment to building, acquiring or licensing the best content-protection technologies for our devices that will set secure copyrights without sacrificing great consumer experiences.”

Fiorina's reassuring remarks came in the wake of HP's landmark agreement to distribute a licensed version of Apple's iPod music player. But her simple protective vow faces complex real-world hurdles, not only from hackers and enthusiasts intent on nabbing Internet or broadband content, but also from the labyrinthine hierarchy of technical standards — which, for now, are fundamentally incompatible. And unresolved.

The appetite for PC-centric distribution of home entertainment is immense, as evidenced by the billion-dollar music download furor of recent years. Delivery of video into and around households will be even bigger, whether via cable/satellite video-on-demand (VOD) or Internet-accessible sources.

Parks Associates, a Dallas research firm, identifies that 51 percent of broadband-equipped households are “very” to “extremely” interested in networking content from their PCs to a TV set. Overall, in Internet households (including those with dialup service), the interest level is just slightly lower (39 percent). Parks envisions that such networked home solutions will come in the form of “point-to-point,” “multi-room” and “cluster” configurations.

The centerpiece of this content — and the source for the home network — may be a PC equipped with software, such as Microsoft's Windows Media Center or DivXNetworks' products. Or, as CES amply displayed, the entry point may be an advanced set-top box or dedicated media server hooked up to Internet access, such as devices from Prismiq, Digital Deck or Motorola.

For example, during CES, start-up Akimbo Systems privately demonstrated its Internet-based VOD system, feeding special-interest videos into a dedicated set-top box. Akimbo says its platform “leverages the openness and momentum of the Internet,” but also assures “digital rights management.”

Operating Room
That's where the true challenges begin. Dozens of suppliers want to provide the core operating system and/or the middleware necessary to gather, store and distribute digital content around the house. On top of that, competing technologies are being bruited about for the compression system that will be used to move digital signals around — most of which also include encryption components to guard against piracy. There's unlikely to be room for more than a handful.

Moreover, new arrivals — such as the Multimedia over Coax Alliance, backed by cable TV, satellite and retail companies — and the veterans, e.g. the group that supports the Home Audio-Video Interoperability (HAVi) standard, backed by Hitachi, Matsushita, Philips, Sharp, Sony, Thomson and Toshiba — don't necessarily interconnect with each other.

Add to that incompatibility the duels over presentation and delivery technology. Microsoft's approach, for example, involves its widely used Media Player software. The current Windows MP Version 9 will be upgraded (presumably to Version 10) by mid-year, according to Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. Applying the same approach used to deploy its now-dominant Internet Explorer browser, Microsoft has made its Media Player “client” software widely and freely available to users. That process lets Microsoft sell its encoding and encrypting technology to content producers with the promise of millions of enabled recipients.

RealNetworks — among others — does not want Microsoft to establish another such fortress in the home media server sector.

In a $1 billion antitrust lawsuit filed last month, RealNetworks, which provides competing digital software encoding/decoding software, sought to curtail Microsoft's assault. Specifically, RealNetworks lambasted Microsoft's “monopoly power to restrict how PC makers install competing media players while forcing every Windows user to take Microsoft's media player, whether they want it or not.”

While that legal duel wends its way through the courts, an array of other standards battles is taking place.

For example, MPEG 4 — a successor to today's widely used MPEG 2 compression technology — is being deployed via Internet providers. But MPEG-4 comes in several flavors, not all of which are compatible, although alliances are taking shape. For example, in November, the holders of H.264 and MPEG-4 AVC patents reached agreement on the terms of a joint patent license for implementation and use of their standards.

The pact underscored “their desire to make this promising new technology widely available to the market in the fastest time possible,” said MPEG LA CEO Baryn S. Futa. He called licensing terms “simple, reasonable and easy to administer,” although the proof of that will come in the development of systems that actually lead to secure products and services.

In-Your-Face Interfaces
Sony Electronics' VP of network and systems, Scott Smyers, suggests another route to that comfort level: the Digital Home Working Group, an alliance of 90 consumer electronics and computer companies that is developing design guidelines. DHWG's work will give consumers “the confidence that when they bring [a product] home, they will be able to hook it up … and once they hook it up, it will actually perform as advertised,” Smyers said.

Beyond such interoperability come critical acceptance factors such as ease of navigation: being able to find a show. As a cheeky Qwest Communications commercial portrayed a few years ago, the broadband digital delivery network can deliver “every movie ever made.” Searching it out is another problem.

With that in mind, countless companies, from Microsoft to Gemstar to Gist to DecisionMark (an Iowa company whose “TitanTV” is backed by broadcasters), are offering navigation tools to find the shows you want to see. Increasingly, that includes searching mega-channel delivery systems as well as the VOD offerings from cable and Internet providers.

For customers of cable and the new telco TV (telephone company) carriers, the search may require special software in the appropriate set-top box. It also means viewers may have to learn new tactics to find the shows they want based on title, star, genre or other factors.

Microsoft, for example, has several on-screen guide systems developed for its various assaults on the home video market. One of Microsoft's approaches includes a dynamic system in which video clips — in thumbnail format — can be seen as a viewer digitally leafs through the listings.

These interfaces — considered a critical factor in attracting usage — are also in early stages. Searching for, and finding, the right video is, after all, the purpose of these on-demand systems. Finding the right way to do it remains a challenge.

In that regard, HP's Fiorina's CES comments about ensuring antipiracy protections go well beyond that factor alone.

“We will actively promote the interoperability of content-protection technologies to ensure that content protection becomes the enabler it was intended to be — not the obstacle to compelling content that many fear,” she declared.

Many other software congruities are also required.

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