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Last Updated: Friday, 12 January 2007, 09:25 GMT
Battle over the digital living room
By Darren Waters
Technology editor, BBC News website, Las Vegas

Apple TV
Apple offers its solution for the digital home
The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas has shown that the digital living room is now a reality but the battle to become the dominant player is still to be won.

Microsoft and Apple want to be the centre of your digital world. But so too do Motorola, British Telecom, SlingMedia, Netgear, BSkyB, Verizon and a myriad other firms.

It is a complicated picture because the ways in which people are accessing and using content - TV, film, music, photos etc - is changing all the time.

"The future is about providing services that cut across these platforms, and none of us knows exactly what they are," Time Warner Cable president Glenn Britt admitted at CES.

As the range of technologies to serve people their digital content increase, so too do the walls that separate one solution from another.

Jon Erensen, a senior analyst with Gartner, said: "The most difficult task facing the consumer electronics industry right now is setting up standards to move that content around the home, to make it interoperable between different types of devices and from different vendors."

The problem is three-fold - digital content that is protected by rights holders will not play on all devices, the array of devices themselves will not always talk to each other and no-one is quite sure of the best method of exchanging this content.

What works in my home, may not work in yours
Merlin Kister, Intel

The confusion arises because technology is developing as rapidly as the hunger to consume content. And where there is hunger, there are companies battling to be the one's feeding consumers.

"There's competition on an unprecedented level," said Mr Erensen.

"There were industries that were very defined, very clear; you knew who your competitors were and you had similar business models to them.

"Now those lines are blurring between industries."

TVs at CES
Will ours TVs one day share information?

On display at CES this year many different technologies boasted they could connect your digital world.

Microsoft is pushing its new operating system Vista as the glue for the connected world, while networking companies like Linksys, D-Link and Netgear also have ways to get content from your PC to your TV.

TV maker Sharp has demonstrated a television which can connect wirelessly so that it can access your music, video and photos on a PC that has Intel's Viiv brand on it.

Sony too has realised that digital entertainment means connected experiences and has released an internet video module that plugs into your broadband connection and your Bravia TV and delivers content without the need for a PC.

Other non-PC solutions include systems from cable and satellite firms who see set-top boxes as the doorway to entertainment, while IPTV set-top boxes delivering video over the net could one day be the digital hub.

Microsoft has a finger in this pie too - it provides the software systems in many IPTV services - including BT Vision in the UK - and used CES to announce that its Xbox 360 box could also double as an internet TV box.

'Primary activity'

"The games console, DVD recorder, set-top box and PC are competing for that one spot in your life to be your hub and the reality is that many consumers will have a preference based on their primary activity," said Mr Erensen.

Companies like Verizon now provide infrastructure and content

"There will be a lot of different boxes in the home and they all need to work with each other."

Tech firm Intel is hoping it will be have the solution to fit the digital jigsaw together and works with hardware manufacturers - PCs and set-top boxes - as well as with service providers wanting to delivering content.

Merlin Kister, director of consumer PC producer market at Intel, said the company did not want to prescribe to the industry one method of delivering the seamless digital world.

He said: "What works in my home, may not work in yours. There have been several models put out there by the industry.

"There is the vision that the PC can be controlling and can serve out different content.

"There is also the vision from set-top box manufacturers saying they will be the gateway to the home and provide content.


"From an Intel perspective we have asked how to make things communicate with each other." Exactly how they talk to each other and in what language they will be speaking remains an unanswered question.

Transcoding will play a bigger role
Jon Erensen, Gartner
In the digital living room huge amounts of content needs to be shifted between devices.

"At the moment there are lots of different types of wireless technologies - and they are all good at doing one thing or the other," said Mr Erensen.

Systems like Bluetooth 3.0, wireless USB, 802.11n are all potential solutions demonstrated at CES and all are incompatible with one another.

"Some are good at high speed but short range some are good over longer distances," said Mr Erensen.

Wired backbone

In the wired world there are also competing standards - such as Ethernet, Powerline or Mocca.

You cannot share Zune songs with an iPod because of DRM

Gartner thinks there needs to be a wired backbone to the digital home, with wireless nodes also serving data to places the wires do not reach.

"Powerline has a lot of potential because it is so simple - the challenge is to make it network aware so it can talk to you and the other devices on the network," said Mr Erensen

Powerline systems allow data to be exchanged across existing electrical wiring in your home and now offers enough bandwidth to deliver high definition content.

"The nice thing about Powerline is that there are multiple places in the room where there are outlets," he added.

But even if the devices speak to each other and the wired or wireless connections also start to shake hands, some content has been protected specifically so that it cannot be shared.

Digital rights management is designed to protect content from piracy but it also limits how and who uses the material.

"Transcoding will play a bigger role, " said Mr Erensen, referring to the potentially real-time transfer of one format to another.

"Part of the problem is that it is hardware and software intensive, especially in high definition.

"The PC has been the machine in the home capable of doing that - in the future you will see other platforms like set-top boxes, DVD recorders and even games consoles capable of that."

Intel thinks its Viiv platform can help.

"We have architecture built-in to Viiv that keeps digital rights associated with content but allows us to wrap and unwrap content with copy protection," said Mr Kister.

But of course not all machines uses Intel's hardware and until companies start talking to each other our digital devices will remain a chain of islands rather than a border-free mainland.

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