June 18, 2003 12:42 PM PDT

Tech giants ally on home networking

Microsoft, Sony and other tech heavyweights are set to unveil a joint effort to make sure that their products--from computers to DVD players to cell phones--can communicate with each other over a home wireless network.

The alliance of 18 major companies from the consumer-electronics, personal computer and mobile devices industries--called the Digital Home Working Group--will announce Tuesday in San Francisco which networking standards it plans to support, according to sources familiar with the group's plans.

Chipmaker Intel, PC maker Hewlett-Packard and cell phone giant Nokia are also involved in the group, which has been working to choose the networking technologies they plan to promote in future products.

"There is a dearth of connectivity capabilities between consumer-electronics and PC products," said Stephen Baker, an analyst with NPD Techworld. "Getting these companies together to talk to one another and hash out which standards they want to support will certainly help get things moving toward networked products."

Many of the companies involved in the group have a common vision of connecting products so that people can use the network to access and share resources at home in much the same way they share a printer or broadband connection at work. For example, people would be able to play digital audio on their living-room stereo even though the music files themselves are stored on a computer in the den.

In addition to making it easier for consumers to access and share digital content across PCs, mobile devices and consumer-electronics products, the alliance also intends to push the mainstream adoption of new products that can be networked together.

But one stumbling block to product harmonization has been that in the networking industry a number of standards perform similar functions, defeating the point of having a standard foundation for product development in some cases.

A case in point, the wireless transfer of data can be done using any of the Wi-Fi specifications--802.11b, 802.11a and 802.11g--or with Bluetooth or Zigbee. It wasn't until Wi-Fi products became popular with consumers that it emerged as the dominant wireless networking technology. Now manufacturers are using Wi-Fi as the basis for networks that can connect consumer-electronics devices, PCs and broadband connections.

The emergence of Wi-Fi as the wireless networking technology of choice took some time and wasted investment in failed technologies such as HomeRF. By allying, the member companies of the Digital Home Working Group effort could be trying to avoid these pitfalls and be hoping to take more of a driver's seat in pushing their preferences.

Representatives from several of the companies declined to comment for this story.

NPD Techworld's Baker said that companies tend to work better when they are promoting a standard as opposed to determining how to use a standard in a technology.

The alliance has considered supporting Wi-Fi, Universal Plug and Play and IEEE 1394 FireWire among other standards and is developing a logo to be applied to products to indicate which products are interoperable.

Louis Burns, vice president of Intel's Desktop Group, mentioned last September at an Intel Developer Forum conference that the chip giant was forming a coalition with Microsoft and Sony to tackle issues surrounding consumer electronics. At the time, though, Burns could not disclose the formal name of the group, the members, or its complete charter.

Consumer-electronics giant Sony has been promoting this vision for several years now because it has investments in both content, such as movies, music and games, and hardware, such as PCs, consumer-electronics products and gaming consoles.

Companies in the Digital Home Working Group are expected to release products using the chosen networking standards over the next year, according to sources.

News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.

 

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