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Be plucks HARP to target hi-fi world

Harp stays sharp to the bottom of the glass. Sorry, wrong Harp...

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Be unveiled its latest reference platform yesterday, this one designed to provide a way of connection audio equipment to the Net.

Called the Home Audio Reference Platform (HARP), it's a canny way of promoting Be's appliance-oriented OS, BeIA, to a whole new bunch of hardware vendors.

In most people's minds, the Net appliance market is all about set-top boxes. You know the kind of thing: a unit that plugs into the TV and pretty much does what a PC does, but more cheaply. That's fine as it goes, but it ignores the vast array of consumer electronics kit that will one day need to be connected to the Net one way or another.

HARP shows that Be, for one, is thinking beyond that very tight concept of what a Net appliance is. The code, essentially a sub-set of BeIA, will allow hi-fi vendors to build components and all-in-one systems that can access the Internet, pull down audio or video content, play it back to the listener and maybe even archive it for future use.

This view of the Net appliance as nothing more than a standard piece of home electronics with enough hardware and smarts to talk to the Internet isn't entirely new. Sun has been hammering on about this for ages, but as far as we're aware it's the first time a company has put all the components - OS, browser, media players, storage database - together into a single solution hi-fi makers can use. Be actually demo'd such a system, codenamed Aura, at Comdex last autumn.

Sony eVilla

It's no surprise that HARP was unveiled just a few days after Sony launched its entertainment-oriented Net access terminal, eVilla, which is not coincidentally based on BeIA. Of course, getting BeIA and HARP into hi-fi kit is another matter, but Sony's example carries a lot of weight with other consumer electronics companies. Sony's box is almost certainly going to be the first BeIA-based device to ship to the public - a major step forward for the OS maker.

HARP is a remarkably compelling platform. As various Register hacks were musing in the boozer last night, the trouble with all this digital media stuff is the wealth of formats. How the heck do you decide which to use, when and where? And how do you ensure that your LP, MC, CD, MD and MP3 collections are all interoperable?

HARP could be the solution. It can pull audio content from all these sources, help organise it all, play it back or feed it to portable playback devices or CD burners.

Kit vendors are going to like it is as much as users will. HARP hooks into Be's BeIA Management and Administration Platform (MAP), which allows them to remotely manage users' equipment, transparently updating codecs and OS components, adding support for new data formats, and so on. Content providers will be tickled too - MAP provides an infrastructure for both subscription and pay-per-listen download e-commerce models.

In the not-too-distant future, when music and movies become services not commodities - just as radio, TV and cinema are already - systems like MAP will be central to the business of online entertainment. Be is in a good position to capitalise upon this emerging market. ®

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