Are You Pining for a Digital Network in your Home?

Lately, there's been a deafening buzz in the high-tech community: Developing digital networks for consumers' homes is going to be the Next Big Thing. There are some skeptics, but the clamor has caught the attention of every big computer company out there; everyone from Sun to Apple to Microsoft to IBM is getting in on the act. However, there hasn't been much noise from the consumer-electronics companies---until now.

During the last couple of weeks, Sony Corporation has announced plans to begin collaborations to create a convergence of personal computers and consumer-electronics products with both Sun Microsystems, Inc. and Microsoft. The companies plan to cross-license key software technologies. Sony intends to license Microsoft's Windows CE operating system and the rival PersonalJava from Sun for use in certain future products.

Under the Sun agreement, Sony plans to support the development of applications based on Java technology for the digital home-entertainment network environment. Microsoft intends to license Sony's Home Networking Module for use with certain versions of Windows CE. No specific product offspring are available yet from anyone---we're still in the honeymoon stage of these romances.

Both PersonalJava and Windows CE are platforms for programming digital consumer-electronics products, such as palm-top computing devices and set-top boxes. Sun and Microsoft are locked in a fierce battle to control the portable and networked technology markets, with Sun recently winning legal control over Microsoft's use of the Java name and logo.

Sony's Home Networking Module is middleware (software that works between the operating system and an application) that supports home-networking standards currently being proposed. The companies believe that this approach will help realize the creation of a home-networking environment that applies the best innovations from both the consumer-electronics and PC industries for the benefit of consumers.

About the Sun agreement, Akikazu Takeuchi, president of Sony Corporation's Software Platform Development Center, says: "Sony is creating an open architecture for the home-entertainment network environment where users will be able to enjoy the seamless interaction of computers, AV equipment, and digital TV. The Java programming language serves as an excellent cross-platform tool for creating home-entertainment network applications."

According to Alan Baratz, president of JavaSoft, a business unit of Sun Microsystems, "Sony is an undisputed leader in the consumer marketplace. We are delighted that Sony has licensed Java technology for use in its advanced digital AV products. Sun is committed to further cultivating the development environment for applications based on Java technology for the home-entertainment network."

Regarding the Sony/Microsoft deal, Nobuyuki Idei, president of Sony Corp., adds: "The time has come for the PC industry and the AV industry to shake hands. Sony supports the establishment of an open architecture that will enable the seamless integration of PC and AV products. The cooperation between Microsoft and Sony will play a key role in making this happen."

To ensure that PCs and AV equipment do not continue to evolve on separate paths, Microsoft and Sony will support and endorse various DTV formats. Issues related to three key steps---production, transmission, and reception---will be addressed jointly by the two companies to enable the transmission and display of digital content. Because video formats can differ at each step, Microsoft and Sony plan to support the formats that will enable the fastest migration to digital television.

Microsoft and Sony will support the use of 1080-interlaced as the preferred format for HDTV production and archiving because it is the highest-resolution format that is cost-effective and currently available. In addition, Sony will develop 480-progressive production equipment in the near future and 1080-progressive equipment as the ultimate goal in the longer term.

Sony will also support any of the ATSC transmission formats, including progressive-scan formats. They plan to market DTV receivers capable of displaying all digital television programs, regardless of the format in which they are produced or transmitted.

Bottom line: If this works out---and that's a huge "if"---using the digital gadgets in your home, including your home-theater system, should get easier. According to Howard Stringer, president of Sony's US subsidiary, "The digital in-home network will allow all these devices and services to interoperate. It's going to make the consumer's life much simpler. Together, we're trying to bring order out of the confusion of the standards war. We want to get high-definition started."