The .11n spec "will make streaming audio better and video possible--as long as you are not using your microwave," said Scott Smyers, vice president of network systems architecture at Sony Electronics and chairman of the Digital Living Network Alliance. "But I still think the digital home will be a heterogeneous environment, and no one physical layer will win."
"The cable operators are more interested in MoCA, the telcos focus on MoCA and HomePNA-over-coax, and others are thinking about HomePlug," said Dave Davies, vice president of strategy and product marketing for Scientific-Atlanta's digital set-tops. "So we'll see multiple flavors of home networks in 2007."
Service providers see wireless as expensive, insecure and unreliable. They fear costly service calls due to routine interference as well as thefts of service from apartment owners picking up a neighbor's wireless TV signals. Thus, Scientific-Atlanta has no plans to integrate any wireless networking in its set-tops this year, though it sells Wi-Fi peripherals that attach to them via USB.
4. Some assembly required
Life isn't any easier for those who just want to add a little intelligence to managing their lights, security and HVAC systems. There are at least three new and three traditional approaches to home automation, with plenty of companies backing each.
Much of the home and industrial-control buzz has centered on ZigBee. The open spec got an update last year supporting star and mesh topologies.
Before the ink had dried on the first ZigBee spec, chip and software developer Zensys gathered more than 60 companies into an alliance that's pushing for the adoption of Zensys' Z-Wave wireless protocol in the home automation market.
And before either of those alternatives got off the ground, Smarthome Inc., a large maker and retailer of home automation products, announced another option. Insteon is a hybrid power line/wireless networking technology that Smarthome claims will fix the reliability problems of current X-10 home control networks while retaining backward compatibility with them. Analysts were cool on Insteon's prospects because it lacks the bandwidth and standards backing of ZigBee.
5. Clash in the PAN
Short-range personal-area networks (PANs) are every bit as fragmented as their counterparts that try to stretch across an entire home. The main underlying transport networks--Bluetooth and ultrawideband (UWB)--come in flavors with various protocols running on top of them.
In May, Microsoft Corp. announced support for WiNet, a form of Internet Protocol over UWB. In October, Nokia rolled out Wibree, a low-power derivative of Bluetooth for links to toys and gadgets running on button-cell batteries. Handset companies are also pushing for near-field communications as a transport for electronic payments. How these mobile PANs will interact in the home network environment is still unclear.
"Right now, it's a mess," said Liam Quinn, chief technology officer for communications and peripherals at Dell Inc., speaking at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference last May. "We are collectively doing a poor job articulating what is Bluetooth, ultrawideband and so on. If we can't do this as savvy technology people, how can users do it?"
The problem is that everyone has a favorite protocol, and developers differ on the best ideas for making it easy to associate nodes on an ad hoc wireless net. But systems have limited space for all the wide-, local- and personal-area radios and antennas that the new efforts are generating.
"At this point, nothing's clear. We will be six to eight months working through this," said Alec Gefrides, a wireless strategist for Intel. "People are still putting up flags for new camps."
6. Too many interconnects, too
The area of dedicated point-to-point connections between consumer systems is also seeing a rising tide of new options, potentially confusing and confounding both system makers and their customers. Once again, the intensity is greatest at the high end, among options to handle the heady bandwidth requirements of high-def video.
On the wired side, DisplayPort and the Unified Display Interface are vying to become the standard for a secure digital link in consumer systems and computers. The pair will compete against two digital interfaces already in use: the Digital Visual Interface and High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI).
"We've ended up with a nightmare scenario of multiple standards. It's a frightening mess," Bob O'Donnell, vice president of clients and displays at International Data Corp., said in a report last spring. "The notion of a converged display interface may just go away."
On the wireless side, startup SiBeam announced it has gathered an ad hoc consortium called WirelessHD around its approach using 60-GHz radios to deliver up to 5 Gbits/s. SiBeam will compete with companies using UWB to deliver 480 Mbits/s or more over an approach dubbed WirelessHDMI. Then there are startups like Amimon, doing proprietary twists with 802.11n to make it HD-ready.
"It is completely unpredictable at this point whether one technology will win or not, but I don't think that will happen," said Craig Mathias, a wireless analyst at Farpoint Group.
7. No key to secure content
Home networks are built to carry both personal and paid-for content, like songs and movies. But there's no standard way to protect the so-called premium content from being copied and freely distributed.
A whole new category of mainly software security products is growing up around different digital rights management (DRM) approaches. Most observers believe the industry will struggle with an increasing number of proprietary solutions for a long time.