Thursday, December 18, 2008

Standards--Love 'em or loathe 'em, we need 'em

If you follow consumer electronics, home networking, or the carrier market, you're likely aware of last week's ITU consent vote on G.9960, the first step towards a holistic approach to home networking currently referred to as Dozens of companies from around the globe have contributed input to the process, in an attempt to deliver a worldwide, best-of-breed, next generation solution for home networking using the existing wires in homes--phone line, power line, and coaxial cable.

Each medium has a unique set of capabilities and characteristics. Power line is ubiquitous. Case in point--I don't know anyone who has an HDTV in their living room who also doesn't have power in that room. Flippant? Maybe, but also true. That ubiquity also contributes to the challenges power line home networks face--"dirty lines" due to old copper or poor quality terminations, spiky current, interference, and lots more.

Physical phone lines are present in just about any home which is a candidate for whole-home networking; despite ongoing consumer defection from land lines to mobiles, the physical copper remains in place. However, in many homes, particularly outside the U.S., the physical phone jack terminates in a single room (or two) in the home, making phone line challenging as a mechanism for providing whole-home connectivity.

Coaxial cable faces challenges similar to phone lines, in that coax isn't typically pulled to every room in the home; also, outside of the U.S., coax is relatively uncommon, so what coax brings to the table in terms of information carrying capacity, it lacks in terms of worldwide ubiquity.

In an attempt to overcome these challenges, the ITU has been working for more than two years on the creation of a unified approach to home networking using existing wires, by utilizing best-of-breed technology from each camp. The ITU effort has a long way (9-12 months, maybe more) to go before finalization, and even longer (an additional 6-9 months) before products show up in consumers' homes. But, make no mistake--a worldwide standard to enable manufacturers to develop a single type of silicon, customized with specific profiles for specific physical media, will drive silicon costs down by promoting a multi-vendor ecosystem which can sell to a worldwide market.

I'll be first in line for those products. Today, our home suffers from horrendous interference in the 2.4 GHz band, making streaming of even standard-definition content over 802.11 a non-starter. Our electrical wiring is more than 35 years old; living in a multi-dwelling unit with Nixon-era wiring delivers a less-than-stellar experience for streaming content over power lines. We have one coax jack, which comes into our home through an external wall. Pulling Ethernet throughout our home is a non-starter financially. But, I'm confident that through the use of a series of devices enabling mix and match of physical media, I'd be able to have a cost-effective home network capable of high-definition streaming, high bitrate data, and VOIP, throughout our home. I'm excited, even if it could be two years till these next generation home network devices show up.

I mention all this for two reasons. First, having been involved in a number of the ITU (and HomeGrid Forum, its complementary marketing, certification, and interoperability partner) meetings over the last year, I have an enormous amount of respect for the members from each participating company, who must weigh their technical contributions against existing company agendas, collaborate to reach common ground on technical approaches, and agree on specifications which are both able to be manufactured and represent a leap forward technically.

Second, I began typing this yesterday while sitting in a DLNA face-to-face committee meeting. The amount of minutiae which must be discussed, negotiated, and agreed to so that consumers can have seamless (or relatively so) usage experiences is MIND-BOGGLING, whether we're talking home networking, digital television delivery, whole-home content sharing, seamless cell phone roaming,

I've heard from quite a few folks that they'd love to see standards and industry alliances go by the wayside in favor of the free and open source community defining standards mechanisms. I gotta tell ya, I don't see that happening in a billion years. If you think certain markets are fragmented now (e.g., GSM vs. CDMA, multiple power line standards), I'd wish you an enormous amount of luck getting ANYTHING from multiple vendors to work together in the absence of agreed industry standards. In the last few months, I've spent a lot of time making devices do things they weren't originally designed to do, whether that's loading open source software on routers (DD-WRT on WRT-54G variants), gaming consoles (XBMC on the original Xbox), or netbooks (uh, "other" operating systems on MSI Winds). As fun (okay, I'm a geek--"fun") as these projects have been, they reinforce why so many people and companies spend so much time and effort defining guidelines and standards for interoperability. Having struggled mightily to get devices to speak to one another at the discovery and application layers, I will gladly, gladly pay for off-the-shelf products containing UPnP and DLNA stacks to minimize the challenges in getting devices to both talk to one another, as well as to share content.

So, a shout-out to all of you in the standards and policy communities, whatever you're working on. Thanks, and keep the faith.

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