• United States

Life beyond HomePlug

Dec 16, 20025 mins

Powerline communications chip vendor ITRAN is key to Microsoft's digital home strategy

Today, when HomePlug is fighting hard to compete against wireless in the high-speed PC networking space, ITRAN is poised for success in command and control, an arena with few competitors and where wireless is inappropriate.

In a recent column on HomePlug’s future (see link below) I said the demise of the Consumer Electronics Association’s (CEA) rival powerline specification R7.3 left ITRAN’s future unclear. Not true. The Israeli powerline chip maker has a lot going on, including a deal with Microsoft that actually helps clarify the giant’s fuzzy digital home strategy.

Two years ago, ITRAN failed to convince the HomePlug Alliance its technology was superior to Intellon’s. It then joined the CEA to help develop the R 7.3 specification, a process beset by delays and bad timing, ending in failure. But today, when HomePlug is fighting hard to compete against wireless in the high-speed PC networking space, ITRAN is poised for success in command and control, an arena with few competitors and where wireless is inappropriate.

Last month, ITRAN announced a new development platform for its IT800SCP chip. The technology is a collaboration between ITRAN and Microsoft that implements ITRAN’s IT800 powerline command/control transceiver and Microsoft’s Simple Control Protocol (SCP) in a single system. Using these tools, developers can network lightweight devices such as appliances, light switches and alarm clocks. In essence, SCP extends Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) to devices that don’t have the processing power to handle TCP/IP traffic. ITRAN’s technology transmits data at 7.5K bit/sec, a far cry from HomePlug’s 14M bit/sec rated speeds, but perfect for networking low-power consumer electronics and white goods such as washing machines.

If you’ve never heard of SCP, you’re not alone. But it’s a key piece (along with UPnP) of what Microsoft will use to connect all our home devices, including its Tablet PCs and Smart Display. (For a white paper on the technology, see link below.)

“The more devices Microsoft can put its operating systems on, the more licensing revenue it will earn,” says In-Stat analyst Jaclynn Bumback. Microsoft’s short-term vision is to extend the PC’s reach into entertainment with the Smart Display. With it, you can carry the device around the home to control whatever you have programmed into your PC (play music, view pictures, etc.) Eventually Microsoft will use the PC for home control using UPnP and SCP as its backbone, Bumback says.

Microsoft will add SCP into the next version of the Windows OS, code-named LongHorn, expected out in late 2004. In-Stat projects there will be “significant shipments” of SCP-enabled devices in the U.S. by 2004, growing to about 8.3 million by 2006.

“We have a good chance to make the IT800 the worldwide standard for low speed and command control,” says ITRAN President and CEO Avner Matmor.

Mitsubishi has announced it will produce ITRAN’s IT800 chips, and ITRAN is in talks with companies such as Samsung and LG in the Far East and some European companies to adopt its technology. In the U.S., GE announced it would adopt ITRAN and Microsoft’s technology, but isn’t moving forward because it doesn’t see any customers yet, Matmor says.

GE might soon change its tune, considering applications for powerline communications (PLC) technology could save it and other white goods manufacturers a lot of money in service calls and legal problems, Matmor says.

Forget silly applications like the ability to have a message pop up on your TV notifying you your laundry is complete. A PLC-enabled washing machine (or refrigerator, dishwasher, microwave) with built-in diagnostic capabilities and Web connectivity can be serviced by a technician remotely. The tech can then either fix the machine by telling the customer what to do or at least bring the right replacement equipment to the site. Either way, the company is saving costly truck rolls, and the customer is saving on service costs.

Toaster companies sometimes get sued when their devices catch fire and burn users. A “smart” toaster could notify the user that there’s a problem before the fire starts or the notification would come via a subscription service. “You’d be willing to pay a dollar a year for such a service? Your insurance company might even insist you do it,” Matmor says.

Another compelling use of PLC is energy conservation. The Japanese government has launched a program with power utilities to use PLC to lower thermostats during the day when no one’s home, conserving energy and decreasing carbon dioxide emissions.

“Ninety-nine percent of our inquiries are for our low-power stuff,” Matmor says. “We think we can win big here.”

HomePlug shares its vision

Network World, 10/28/02

ITRAN Communications

An Overview of the Simple Control Protocol

Simple Control Protocol

Mitsubishi Electric Semiconductor Group