Home networks, DRM and support

As connected TV and OTT becomes commonplace, the concept of the home network has returned. Since the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) was set up in 2003, there have been advances in interoperability between home media appliances, but DLNA can hardly be called a great success in terms of its use. Part of this stems from the lack of content free for sharing. Although a wide range of consumer devices supports the standard, content protection extends only to link protection, much like the HDCP on HDMI cables. Unprotected content can be shared around a DLNA network, but as the DLNA states in its roadmap white paper: “Given the complexity of implementing DRM interoperability, it will be some time before content providers arrive at an approach on which they all agree.”

Content owners are not inclined to make their assets available to an open system, but they need DRM to protect their IP. The recently launched UltraViolet offers one solution, with a mechanism to operate several DRM systems in a cohesive environment that allows consumers to view purchased content on any of their viewing devices.

Another route is from Apple, with the closed world of iTunes and iCloud. This works well within the “walled garden.”

Aside from issues of DRM, I still have reservations about multivendor “digital living.” If your phone goes wrong, you call the phone company. If the STB plays up, call the cable or satellite operator. If your tablet won't speak to your home server, whom do you call? Businesses have IT departments for such reasons, and the corporate IT department will have a constrained set of hardware, applications and operating systems that it supports. Running a reliable home network with a mix of equipment from different vendors is going to be a challenge unless you have a geek in the family. This is the big advantage of the TV-Everywhere packages from service providers. They make it all work, just as buying everything from Apple ensures the kit all plays together.

If you buy a TV, a Blu-ray player and home theater from one vendor, it all works together; the vendor has house protocols to enable interoperability. But the fact of competition means there is no incentive to interoperate with other vendors beyond a vanilla HDMI or phono interface. All the control links that ease operation are missing.

This maintenance and support issue is going to drive many to the cable and satellite companies with triple-play packages. Those who don't want to pay subscriptions probably won't want to pay the local multiroom system vendor to solve their home network problems, so they are on their own. It just demonstrates that what you buy with home entertainment is a complete service: content and support.

There are ways around the support issue. If CE vendors supplied better software — self-healing and intuitive to use — then building a home network could become easier. I have never bought a computer peripheral that came with user-friendly software. The embedded code is OK, but the user interfaces come nowhere near the simplicity of use found in Apple and Microsoft products. It's as if the hardware vendors think the software is an optional add-on, not a core part of the product. This attitude will remain a major impediment to a seamless user experience in running a multidevice home media platform. As support for OTT becomes an integral part of television receivers, will vendors be driven to better user interfaces? And then there is the elephant in the room, DRM. Since it only operates on trusted systems, will we see a divide into the legitimate subscribers with managed systems, and those on the periphery, viewing over the air, and any stolen content they can share, anything you don't have to pay for?

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