Why HDTV Hasn't Arrived In Many Homes

R.A. Hettinga rah at shipwright.com
Tue Jan 4 20:57:08 PST 2005


The Wall Street Journal

      January 5, 2005


 Hasn't Arrived
 In Many Homes

January 5, 2005

Eric Olander has a new love, his Sony high-definition TV. But something is
coming between them: High-definition television programming.

Mr. Olander adores the picture quality on the high-definition channels he
gets from EchoStar Satellite LLC, but there are at best only nine available
to him. Whenever he switches back to a regular channel, "everything seems
substandard," he says.

Adding insult to injury, his TiVo doesn't record high-definition programs
in high definition: When he plays them back, they look like ordinary TV.
And some of the programs are simply conventional movies converted into a
digital form, so they don't have the crisp quality he's grown addicted to.
"It's just not enough," says Mr. Olander, a 34-year-old manager at a Los
Angeles television station and a gadget freak.

Gripes from demanding customers like Mr. Olander help explain why so many
cool technologies -- from high-definition TV to home networking to
interactive TV -- just aren't catching on yet. Besides shortcomings in
existing products, battles over technical standards and fear of video
piracy are slowing manufacturers' ability to deploy new stuff. Many
potential customers, disappointed and confused, are walking out of stores

The good news: Manufacturers are well aware of the problem. Progress in
speeding the delivery of digital content and technology will be a major
theme among industry giants converging at the Consumer Electronics Show in
Las Vegas, which formally opens tonight.

For example, Hewlett-Packard Co. and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.,
better known as Panasonic, today are announcing a peace agreement in a
long-running format war over recordable DVDs. Each company plans to adopt
the other's formats, known by confusing acronyms that include +R and RAM.
As a result, users will be able to more easily edit video on a
Hewlett-Packard PC that was recorded on a Panasonic DVD recorder. "Seamless
is a key word," says Naoto Noguchi, vice president of Panasonic's
audio-visual business unit. (See related story1.)

Now for the bad news. Despite some advances, companies are still moving
pretty slowly, not least because they tend to delay progress that can help

Take, for example, the issue of content compatibility. Imagine that a movie
purchased from a Best Buy store could only be played on a DVD player that
also was bought at Best Buy -- and not on a player from Circuit City or
Radio Shack. That is, in essence, what is happening in online music, the
first big digital-content battleground.

The only major paid download service that works with Apple Computer Inc.'s
iPod device is Apple's own iTunes, because of the copyright protection used
by the computer maker. In July, a rival online music service, RealNetworks
Inc., cracked the Apple system with a technology called Harmony so that
customers who bought songs from RealNetworks could play them on an iPod.
Apple has taken steps to modify its offerings to prevent iPods from working
with Harmony.

Such infighting is very common with emerging technology, where design
incompatibilities "are a huge impediment to adoption," says Paul Kocher,
president of Cryptography Research Inc., a digital security consultancy.

Historically, consumer-electronics makers had little need to cooperate with
rivals, because their TVs, stereos and other audio-visual gear were
standalone products. Attempts at cooperation on common standards often
erupted into format wars, such as the famous battle in the 1970s between
Betamax videocassettes, backed by Sony Corp., and VHS, backed by Japan
Victor Corp., or JVC.

Today, getting high-definition TV is already something of a struggle.
Viewers who don't receive a special set-top box from a cable or satellite
provider must purchase a separate tuner to be able to see high-definition
pictures. And people who use the words "digital" and "high def"
interchangeably could be in for a nasty surprise when they get their TV
home: Not all digital TVs show high-definition programming.

Other battles are slowing high-definition content's arrival in homes. A
high-capacity successor to the DVD, for example, is needed before consumers
can buy or rent high-definition movies. Already two competing technologies,
dubbed Blu-ray and HD DVD, have divided the nascent market into warring

Determined to make sure the new disks aren't copied as easily as today's
CDs and DVDs, movie studios, electronics companies and others are pondering
an array of content-protection technologies. Because movies are more
difficult to transfer than songs, video piracy hasn't hurt the major
studios as badly as music piracy has hurt major record groups. But it has
contributed to delays.

"The threat is still vaguely theoretical," says Talal Shamoon, chief
executive officer of InterTrust Technologies Corp., Sunnyvale, Calif., a
pioneer in copyright-protection technology. "The good news is there is
still time; the bad news is there is still time."

In home networking, electronics makers' tendency to go their own way has
led to a muddle of competing standards that could mean a "networked" Sony
TV, for instance, wouldn't talk to a PC from Toshiba Corp. Some Sony TVs
came with software that let you access video or audio files on your PC --
as long as it was a Sony Vaio PC.

Industry giants are slowly working out some of these challenges. One
standard-setting group, the Digital Living Network Alliance, is working on
standard specifications for connecting consumer-electronic devices and
moving files between them.

In content protection, industry giants such as IntelCorp. and Microsoft
Corp. are backing a technology consortium known as AACS LA, for Advanced
Access Content System Licensing Administrator. Another group, the Coral
Consortium, favored by H-P, Philips NV and others, is trying to develop
ways for different copyright-protection technologies to work together.

"I think we are to the point where the forces are converging," says Steve
Canepa, a vice president at International Business Machines Corp., which
endorses the AACS LA effort.

The sheer size of digital media files is another problem for consumers.
Wireless networks haven't been fast and reliable enough to dependably move
high-definition video around the house.

A Silicon Valley start-up, Video54 Technologies Inc., is set to unveil a
new antenna technology at the consumer-electronics show that can help steer
wireless signals around obstacles in the home and deliver smooth video
images. "We are ready to roll into production" with the technology, says
Patrick Lo, chief executive officer of Netgear Inc., which makes wireless
access devices.

Interactive TV has faced similar obstacles. Television studios are working
on prototypes of shows allowing fans to play games integrated into
programming. But each satellite and cable operator has proprietary
technology, based on remote controls or other devices users would use to
interact with programs. So the studios must select one system to work with,
or go through a laborious process of adapting their content for more than

Cable companies are working on a single standard for interactive TV known
as Open Cable Applications Platform. It would bring the five major cable
companies onto the same page, but satellite systems still may develop their
own programming, for competitive reasons.

"This will be used as a very big corporate advantage among the operators, "
says Scott Higgins, EchoStar's director of interactive programming. If
proprietary interactive content is strong enough, "you will be stealing
viewers from the competition."

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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