• United States

New group aims to ease standards bloat

Jul 07, 20033 mins

Will the Digital Working Group ultimately make things better or worse?

One thing’s for sure: The connected home market doesn’t suffer from a lack of interest from technical, marketing and special interest groups. From the IEEE working groups focused on physical layer specifications (802.11 to 802.3 to IEEE 1394) and protocol and discovery layers (UPnP, Jini, HaVi, ZeroConf), to the more marketing oriented (Internet Home Alliance, Wi-Fi, WiMedia), the home network world is chock full of groups to see that standards are formed, marketing brochures created and analysts briefed. In fact, you’d think from all the activity, the home network industry needs another working group like it needs a crimp in its Ethernet cable.

Well, here comes another one. In late June the Digital Home Working Group (DHWG) made its debut. Don’t groan, this one is different. Backed by powerhouses such as Intel, Sony and Microsoft, the DHWG isn’t cooking up a new standard. Instead, its wants to make sense of all the existing technologies we’ve already got. The DHWG plans to recommend standards, and create a compliance and certification program aimed to enable more cool products, specifically ones that let the PC and consumer electronics worlds connect and communicate.

But is this really necessary? Won’t innovation happen naturally, with start-ups and established companies chasing the latest concept in convergence products? Put yourself in the shoes of a start-up that wants to bring to market a media adapter (see the editorial links section below). For starters, you need to decide which type of network connections to use (let’s see, wireless, power line, phone line, coax, fishing line), then which software to include so the adapter can communicate with available devices. Next, you need to pick which media format to support (MPEG4, MPEG2, Real, Windows Media, DiVX, to name a few) and then start trying to figure out how to handle digital rights management. Each choice means more money for licensing and development, and the wrong choice can be catastrophic. And for consumers, wouldn’t it be nice to have some consistency in products that allow for greater interoperability?

While the goals of the group make a lot of sense, the DHWG is really a two-sided coin. Choosing the technologies that should be used in building converged-network products is good in theory, but it also means making tough, political choices — already illustrated by the group’s first recommendation: That vendors use either Fast Ethernet or Wi-Fi as a network interconnect technology. What does this mean for HomePlug and HomePNA, let alone long-haul 1394? Surely, the stakeholders in these technologies, silicon vendors and system OEMs, can’t be happy. 

And while some start-ups might find relief in being told not to bet the latest round of funding on developing fishing-line based products, creating a group of recommended standards be another way for the market powers to impose their will, and possibly in the long run, stifle innovation. The start-ups working hard on coax and ultra wideband products come to mind.