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PC, CE giants propose digital interoperability scheme

DHWG is UPnP by any other name

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PC players and consumer electronics giants came together today to launch yet another industry body, this time charged with finding a way to make sharing digital content between digital devices much easier.

The Digital Home Working Group (DHWG), initially conceived by Intel and Sony, is backed by Microsoft, Nokia, HP, IBM and Thomson, along with the likes of Fujitsu, Gateway, Kenwood, NEC, Matsushita/Panasonic, Philips, Sharp, Samsung and ST Microelectronics.

Essentially, the DHWG's mission is to cut through a Gordian knot of IT and CE initiatives launched in the last ten years or so and provide a single, simple way of getting PCs and peripherals, consumer electronics kit, mobile phones and PDAs to communicate and share content.

"A number of conflicting standards and media formats exist today making the digital home complex to set-up and manage," the body says, putting it mildly. "Industry standards alone do not always ensure interoperability," it adds without irony.

That lists of standards includes Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), the Home AV interface (HAVi), USB, 1394/Firewire, Wi-Fi, the Versatile Home Network (VHN), the Digital Entertainment Network Initiative (DENi) and many, many more.

The intention is not to replace these standards - though some may find themselves redundant, we expect - but to create an interoperability framework in which they can co-exist and share data, technology permitting. So the Wi-Fi enabled PDA will be able to stream video off the living room DVD player, and the TV can display movies coming in to the home via the ADSL box. Pictures taken on the camera-equipped cellphone can be sent straight to the printer and e-mailed via the PC without the need to copy them over first.

While such a framework is undoubtedly needed, its collapse is threatened by its size. The DHWG wants to construct the framework out of open standards but openness doesn't guarantee they'll work well together or that the result with be streamlined. Just look at the mess that is the Bluetooth interoperability is.

The DHWG also has an aggressive schedule. It wants to publish guidelines in time to allow vendors to offer compatible products within a year. It also wants to establish itself as a compliance testing body, and presumably give said products the thumbs up within that timeframe.

One clear winner is UPnP, which the organisation has already stated will form the basis for "the media management and control solution [used in] products based on DHWG guidelines". Indeed, many of the DHWG's founders are also key UPnP supporters.

So is Digital Rights Management (DRM), which will almost certainly be a part of the DHWG framework, either through legislation or content industry pressure. Interestingly interoperability between DRM systems isn't a priority - it's not roadmapped until beyond 2006 - and for now the DHWG says that a specific DRM solution will not be mandated.

Media formats supported by the framework include JPEG and PNG (graphics), LPCM (audio) and MPEG 2 (video), with the likes of MP3, AAC, MPEG 4, WMV 9, GIF, TIFF and ATRAC 3 as optional extras. HTTP is the main candidate for media transport, UPnP for device discovery and control, IP for the network protocol, and wired and wireless Ethernet for the physical network.

1394 is also part of the framework, though it's not listed on the roadmap. The DHWG sees UPnP operating on top of IP across 1394. Ultimately, it says, it wants 1394 devices to support UPnP directly, and it will "investigate and re commend suitable methods and strategies for allowing 1394 devices to support UPnP technology over IP."

That's typical of the DHWG's approach - to see how the non-UPnP elements will fin in with UPnP. Essentially, the DHWG is UPnP Forum mark II, selling interoperability based on the technology rather than selling the technology itself. It's presumably by building on this already-established system that will allow the DHWG to meet its aggressive product release schedule.

Will it work this time? UPnP has been supported by its chief proponents, but the UPnP Implementers' web site still lists just 14 products, many of them well over two years old. The list is likely to be incomplete, but we hardly get the feeling we're awash with UPnP products. Clearly, the DHWG wants to change that. ®

Related Link

The Digital Home Working Group

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