Companies big and small at the International Consumer Electronics Show this week are touting digital technology as the unifying language for computers, the Internet and home entertainment.
Despite some major progress in bringing PCs and TVs together, though, there’s still a lot being lost in translation -- and the Babel was evident Wednesday.
In the annual convention’s first keynote speech, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates gave a preview of products that beam music, movies, digital photos and television shows from a computer to any TV or stereo in the home. His comments came shortly after executives from Sony Corp. unveiled a downloadable music service designed to work easily with portable music players, game consoles and palm-sized digital devices.
But Microsoft’s products run only on devices using Microsoft’s software, and Sony’s service initially will be able to download songs only to Sony equipment.
Lack of interoperability is common, particularly among devices designed to play premium content such as Hollywood movies and major-label music.
Although several groups are trying to come up with industrywide standards, pioneering companies are moving ahead with products that don’t necessarily work with their competitors’ gear.
“What that means is all these content-protection technologies are going to collide in the home,” lamented Donald M. Whiteside, a vice president of legal and government affairs at Intel Corp. “And every device in the home isn’t going to be able to recognize all of those protection technologies.”
Microsoft and other companies pressing ahead with home entertainment networks acknowledge those limits but say the market will determine which approach the industry will rally around. And Gates noted that some Hollywood studios weren’t ready to let their works be zapped from PCs to TVs and portable devices.
“This is a momentum thing,” Gates said in an interview with The Times. Persuading one studio to let its movies move off the PC “helps you get the second, which helps you get the third....
“We need to get the content partners to feel good about how content flows onto those portable devices, as well as how it flows onto ... TV screens, multiple screens around the house,” he added. “Getting that kind of flexibility for users with the wide range of video content is a very important scenario for us.”
Five years ago, it was no mean feat just to get two computers in a home to talk to each other. Since then, technology companies have made it significantly easier to set up digital home networks that let computers exchange files or share an Internet connection, and about 12% of U.S. households now have one, said Kurt Scherf of Parks Associates, a market research firm.
Enabling computers to talk to televisions and stereos over a home network is a tougher task, particularly when the goal is to let users retrieve movies, music and games stored on any device in the home or the Net and play them on any TV set or speakers.
Yet that’s what consumers are increasingly interested in doing, according to a survey to be released today by NPD Group, a research firm.
Over the last year, a growing number of companies have trotted out specialized devices that can take pictures or songs from a home PC and play them through a home network.
Meanwhile, a coalition of technology and consumer-electronics companies called the Digital Home Working Group has been developing a common approach to networking PCs and entertainment gear in a home.
That group has nearly completed its first round of specifications, which apply to audio, video and image files that aren’t protected by electronic locks. Those specifications won’t apply to Hollywood movies and hit music delivered through the Internet, which are encrypted to deter piracy.
Popular, mainstream content is key to the emergence of the digital home envisioned by Gates and others.
“Devices hooked up to the TV had better deliver some pretty incredible value, or they don’t succeed,” said analyst Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research.
On Wednesday, Gates showed off how Microsoft plans to handle encrypted entertainment when it releases a new version of its Windows XP Media Center software this fall.
The Redmond, Wash.-based company is extending the software to set-top boxes, game consoles and even TV sets, enabling them to reach across a home network to play encrypted movies and music stored on a PC.
It also is developing a version that would let users transfer recorded TV shows, downloaded songs and rented movies to portable devices, such as the emerging category of palm-sized video players.
The point is to let online music services such as Roxio Corp.'s Napster and Internet movie distributors such as Movielink and CinemaNow Inc. deliver entertainment to customers wherever they want it.
But the catch, Gates said, is that the software will provide only as much flexibility as the studios and record labels will permit.
Several companies that frequently partner with Microsoft, including Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell Inc., Gateway Inc. and Samsung Corp., plan to make set-top boxes and televisions with the Media Center Extender technology by the end of the year.
But because the technology focuses on Microsoft’s Windows software, there’s no support expected for entertainment services that use competing software, such as RealNetworks Inc.'s Rhapsody and Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes Music Store.
Microsoft is one of several companies moving ahead. For example, rival RealNetworks and partners already are providing products that move Rhapsody from the PC to a living-room stereo, and TiVo Inc. and partners are developing ways to move TV programs recorded on a TiVo to a computer or portable video player.
Sony, which has a history of swimming against the industry tide in favor of its own technologies, sees this digital anarchy as an opportunity.
Its personalized Connect service, which launches this spring with music and related material, will offer 99-cent downloads that can be moved seamlessly to a wide range of Sony computers, hand-helds and other gear from the Sony family.
“At the end of the day, it’s about driving sales of devices,” said Todd Schrader, a vice president of product management at Sony Electronics Inc.
And that’s not a bad strategy, Forrester’s Bernoff said.
“It’s very hard to make money at 99 cents a track,” he said. “You need to do more than sell music. You have to create a complete wraparound experience.”