LAS VEGAS - As the top design managers of the major consumer electronics companies descend on the Winter Consumer Electronics show here next week (Jan.7-10), the winds of change seem to be blowing from a new direction. The quest to design a killer convergence product such as a PC/TV is over. Instead, engineers at the top suppliers have set about developing a host of distributed, connected digital devices in an environment where networking, Java-and a good deal of partisan politics among technology factions-are on the rise.
"Political infighting or a lack of compromise among those participating in the industry groups' discussions is my biggest concern," said Rodger Lea, vice president of the Distributed Systems Laboratory at Sony U.S. Research Laboratories (San Jose, Calif.). "I'm concerned that a real message to our consumers could easily get lost," Lea said. "We are not telling them what the real added value of digital TV is."
Sources said politics is also to blame for the fact that the OpenCable specification for a standard digital set-top box has fallen seriously behind schedule-a fact that Paul Liao, chief technology officer and president of Panasonic Technologies Inc. (Princeton, N.J.), said is his biggest lingering concern. The culprit, Liao said, is "different companies refusing to work together."
Surveying the landscape of nascent digital consumer products, Cees Jan Koomen, president of the digital video group at Philips Consumer Electronics, spies an imminent crisis for manufacturers, given that "analog TVs [are] maturing and the demand for PCs [is] also maturing." Koomen predicted that technology issues surrounding many digital consumer devices would remain "fluid" throughout 1999.
One area where consensus appears to be forming is in the need for connectivity, generally enabled by Java. Though sources said no one company or technology will dominate the digital consumer space in the way Wintel has ruled the PC, Java "has gained dominance in the last six months" in the consumer-electronics industry, said Koomen.
For example, said Sony's Lea, key consumer players along with several other companies are working to define a digital-TV application programming interface, tentatively called Java.TV. Though many of its activities are still under wraps, the Java.TV collaboration has speeded up since Sun opened up its licensing policy a few months ago, according to sources close to the project.
Java.TV is not a subset of PersonalJava or EmbeddedJava, but rather "a set of APIs defined [to be] suited for television," said Lea. Although becoming a PersonalJava licensee is not a requirement to participate in the discussion, Panasonic's Liao, whose parent company recently took a PersonalJava license, said, "it always helps facilitate things."
Not everyone is sold on Java, however. Microsoft Corp. and Thomson Consumer Electronics, for example, are working together to define what's necessary for the next-generation television, which they have dubbed eTV. "A Java-like solution is certainly under consideration, but we haven't got it all defined yet," said Ed Milbourn, manager of advanced-TV product planning at Thomson.
Beyond the TV effort, a Java Virtual Machine is expected to go inside many advanced digital consumer systems, serving as a glue and as a run-time environment. The result, said Sony's Lea, will be "a higher level interoperability" among devices compliant with the HAVi (Home Audio-Video interoperability) home networking spec agreed upon last year by eight consumer electronics companies. They are Grundig, Hitachi, Matsushita, Philips, Sharp, Sony, Thomson Multimedia and Toshiba.
A set of HAVi APIs based on Java will give an independent consumer system the power to remotely execute applications, provide a graphical user interface or upload Device Control Modules written in Java byte code. Such applications or modules need not be pre-installed in each embedded system; the HAVi API enables each device to send the capabilities it needs to other devices over the home network.
Indeed, networking is becoming a mantra for consumer companies. Their object is to build a home network infrastructure so that "suddenly, a newly bought digital consumer appliance is no longer just another standalone box," irrelevant to the rest of the systems, said Lea. Connectivity-or distributed computing power on the home network-should breathe new life, new value and new capabilities into home digital consumer electronics, he said.
Industry-wide efforts to lay the groundwork for a home networking infrastructure have only begun. This spring, Panasonic plans to launch a 5.7-GHz wireless PC multimedia transceiver system called MicroCast. However, Liao acknowledged that Panasonic remains totally undecided which technologies-RF, telephone or power lines, IR or cable-may become the mainstream pipe to deliver audio, video and data within the home network.
Nevertheless, the birth of HAVi this year laid the cornerstone for "a much more complete paradigm for networked and distributed computing," Liao said. He sees the network as the key driver "to draw the technologies together" in 1999 and beyond.
But debate is raging over just what that network should be or do. "The added value of home networking needs to be more than just something engineers in Silicon Valley want to do at home," said Simon Dolan, vice president of marketing at the consumer division of LSI Logic Corp. (Milpitas, Calif.).
Philips' Koomen argued that the vision for home networking exists at a much more fundamental level. When a consumer buys a new multichannel audio receiver, for example, the system itself-through the home network-should be able to register its presence and capabilities. It should introduce itself to the rest of the digital entertainment systems already installed, letting them know what it does and how the others can use the receiver's new multichannel capabilities.
"The system should be able to take care of itself, without having consumers get involved in complex setup procedures," he said.
Sony's Lea goes a step further. "A user ultimately shouldn't even have to care which device within the home needs to be activated in order to listen to his or her favorite song," he said. Showing the HAVi-based in-house network system demo that's installed in his lab, Lea said, "We can just display a list of contents to consumers. All consumers have to do is to choose what they want to hear or watch."
In the new era of networked devices, most consumer electronics makers have tossed aside the model of one powerful server as each home's sole link to the outside world. And even though many remain skeptical of PC/TV convergence products, LSI Logic's Dolan predicted that 1999 will be a year of "experiments" for many system vendors to launch such combo boxes as DBS/DVD, WebTV/set-top or DVD/WebTV.
"We think that two factors-cost savings and enhancement of consumer functions-will drive consumer platform convergence," said Les Kohn, a fellow and chief architect at C-Cube Microsystems. He envisioned video storage being integrated into DVD, digital-TV or WebTV boxes.