DLNA Decoded

Bits are bits - just ones and zeros. Your digital music, video, and photos are all merely data; they're not stuck to some physical entity, such as a disc or a tape or a piece of paper. An MP3 file might come from your iPod, your computer, or your cellphone. A digital videoclip might originate on a DVD or a hard drive, or from a satellite receiver or a cable box. Of course, there can be differences in the audio and video circuitry of the playback devices, but the data is all the same, no matter where it resides.

Still, most of our digital media prefers to stay where it was born. Don't believe me? Use your cellphone to snap a cute picture of your dog, and then try displaying the phone to snap a cute picture of your dog, and then try displaying the photo on your flat-panel TV for visiting friends to enjoy/suffer. Masochist that I am, I do this on occasion. I use the phone to send the image to my computer via e-mail. Then I open my e-mail and download the photo. Then I transfer it from the My Photos folder on the computer to a USB thumb drive. Then I plug the thumb drive into the TV. Then I go through the TV's cumbersome menu system to access the thumb drive. Then I select the photo I want - and pray I didn't use the drive that holds my collection of Tila Tequila bikini pics (or even more embarrassing, the one with all those hardcore images of amplifier schematics).

I can almost hear the engineers out there saying, "What's so hard about that? It's a simple process." Sure it is, if your idea of fun is dragging files from device to device to device. And if your e-mail's working. And if you can find a thumb drive. And if your audience is immensely patient.

A group of people associated with the consumer electronics industry finds this situation to be totally unacceptable. Its dream is that all of your A/V gear, all of your computers (and their peripherals), and all of your portable devices will swap digital content as easily as grade-schoolers swap sandwiches at lunch.

The name of this group is DLNA, or Digital Living Network Alliance. It comprises more than 250 firms, including practically every major A/V company you can name, and plenty you can't. In October 2006, the group finished a set of guidelines that's just now making its way into products. And (for the sake of this story) I have a houseful of them.

Why Live Digitally?

For about a decade, we've heard manufacturers praise "digital living" and a "digital lifestyle." But if you've ever suffered through a router installation or spent an hour trying to figure out why your computer's sound card isn't working, the prospect of digital living might not lure you away from analog loafing.

The fact, though, is that we are living digitally, whether we realize it or not. Who among us would want to go back to a film camera, or a VHS VCR, or a cassette Walkman?

The intent of DLNA is not to change our lifestyle but merely to streamline it - to make it easy to access all of our digital content. Simply put, the promise is that everything in your home will be wherever you want it, whenever you want it, with no superhuman competence required on your part to retrieve it.

Chris Walker, senior manager of A/V marketing and product planning at Pioneer, elaborates: "In the past, all the products that served up content were designed to do it through PCs. That's a great place to create or download content but not the best place to enjoy it, because the display and the audio system are designed for one person to use. And a cellphone isn't a good place to show your media to a large number of people. A core idea of DLNA is that it expands a personal experience to a group experience."

Adds Scott Smyers, senior vice president of Sony's Network and Systems Architecture Division and president of the DLNA Board of Directors: "DLNA is the landing zone for content once it's downloaded. Content providers can realistically hope to sell a high-def download and have it appear on the big flat-panel TV in someone's living room."