Las Vegas -- The home network is the next frontier in electronics. That much is clear from the Consumer Electronics Show opening here this week, brimming with home networking concepts and technologies.
But in many respects, the digital home is still untamed territory.
Engineers face historic levels of complexity in building the digital home. Consumers expect both top-notch quality and ease of use.
That means engineers will have to find a way to route high-definition video streams among a va- riety of set-top boxes, players and TV screens without dropping a frame or frustrating Joe Viewer as he tries to fire up HD versions of the Super Bowl for his buddies in the living room and Toy Story for the kids in the den.
"There's a huge set of things engineers have to put in place--digital rights management, media formats--and you have to have all the pieces implemented before the content flows," said Brendan Traw, chief technology officer of Intel Corp.'s digital home group. "If any piece of the puzzle is not present, it doesn't work."
What's more, the stakes are high. Market watcher iSuppli Corp. (El Segundo, Calif.) predicts shipments of products with integrated wired home networking will rise by more than a factor of 10 in the next four years, to hit 223.8 million units in 2010. Parks Associates estimates that the number of North American homes with networked digital video recorders more than quadrupled between 2005 and yearend 2006, from 400,000 to 1.7 million.
But there are no easy pickings in this gold rush. An unprecedented number of players are competing for a piece of the action, and coordination among those would-be architects is minimal.
The ultimate solution could require a realignment of the consumer industry from vertically oriented companies to a more horizontal structure, in which different vendors handle different pieces of the problem. That would make the consumer sector look more like the computer industry, said Mike Buckley, a director at Intel Capital, which manages a $200 million consumer fund.
In the run-up to CES, we've boiled down the pitfalls involved in building the digital home into a top-10 list, based on the many stories we've written about home networking since the last Consumer Electronics Show. Read it and weep.
1. Home networks are hard to use
It's easy enough to prove that home networks are still too complicated--just try using one. "The glue that holds all this together is home networking, and it stinks," said Van Baker, a consumer analyst with Gartner Dataquest, in an early-2006 story. "If home networking stays like it is, it will stall at 30 percent penetration."
"We've all dealt with that rat's nest of wire behind our home entertainment centers," said Bruce Watkins, president and COO of Pulse-Link Inc. (San Diego). Pulse-Link is one of several companies that joined the High-Definition Audio-Video Network Alliance, hoping to create guidelines that will make it easier to link TVs, digital recorders and storage devices via a single IEEE 1394 cable. The group promises that systems using its approach will emerge this year.
Another Gartner consumer electronics analyst, Jon Erensen, summed up the situation succinctly during a briefing last month in San Jose, Calif. "There are a lot of solutions out there," he said, "but not the real interoperability you need for wired and portable products across multiple vendors."
2. There's no one road to quality
The problem is not a lack of mechanisms to ensure what's called quality-of-service (QoS) on the home network. To the contrary, there are too many of them.
"Everybody has a different notion of what QoS should be, but if you've got more than one QoS, you haven't got any," said Glen Stone, a director of strategy, standards and architecture for Sony Electronics Inc. Many players see the capability of delivering multimedia over a home net as a competitive advantage or core competency. "They fundamentally want to have control over QoS in the home net, because if something goes wrong people will call them for support," Stone said.
Problems only get worse with the move to high-definition TV and DVD. "We are focused on the HD experience, and that content really exacerbates the QoS issue," said Gary O'Neall, vice president of global set-top development for Motorola Inc.
Two groups are doing some fundamental work in this area. The Universal Plug and Play Forum is tackling the issue from a high-level software perspective, while the 802.1 Audio/Video Bridging Task Group is trying to make changes in silicon for QoS. Two other groups may leverage their work. The Home Gateway Initiative represents telcos and their suppliers, and Cable Labs handles R&D in areas including home networking for the cable TV industry.
3. There are too many home nets
Despite the rise of 802.11n broadband wireless links this year, Wi-Fi is no panacea for the digital home (see Jan. 1, page 1). Other wired and wireless solutions will come on strong as well. They include coax-based approaches from the Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA), Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA), power line-based HomePlug 2.0 and various flavors of ultrawideband.
HomePNA leapfrogged its competition in throughput in November, announcing a version 3.1 spec with an aggregate 320 Mbits/second over two simultaneous channels. But MoCA officials say cable TV suppliers will announce support for their approach this year.