Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:


This week brought news that copy protection powerhouse Macrovision had continued its acquisition streak by purchasing Mediabolic for $43.5 million. Neither company is a household name, but both provide ingredient technologies for the digital home. Macrovision's offerings have been used to deter copying since the days of videotape and in Mediabolic's short history it worked with consumer brands such as Pioneer, Maxtor (now Seagate), and HP. With Mediabolic's assets, Macrovision will seek to appeal to both ends of the tug of war between device manufacturers and content owners. It hopes to use Mediabolic's modular system for handling the messy plumbing involved in distributing content around the home or from the Net as bait to support rights-managed content.

On one hand, the timing of the announcement seems primed for what will be the best year ever for the digital home at CES. The best news will be around home network bandwidth. After many political battles and their resulting delays, high-speed wireless networking in the form of 802.11n as well as a viable wired alternative in HomePlug AV will finally arrive in 2007, as will the simpler high-speed wireless connections enabled by Wireless USB. To the extent that Windows is used as a platform for serving or enjoying home media, the imminent arrival of Windows Vista will improve those experiences.

However, by and large the nodes will be missing. Only a smattering of consumer electronics support network connectivity natively, although more progress is bound to come at this year's CES. Pioneer, Sharp, and HP have already shown or shipped flat-panel TVs that can stream media from a PC. Every HD-DVD player must support network connectivity according to the spec, and most Blu-Ray devices should as well. And of course all three major consoles now have integrated wired (Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3) or wireless (Nintendo Wii) connections. The first DLNA devices should also start to ship in the U.S. in 2007, offering some level of compatibility assurance.

And then there are the distribution issues tangled more by business models than technology. Much of Mediabolic's focus has been on the home network. However, there are a whole set of separate issues and scads of competitors focused on bringing content down from not only the Internet, but proprietary wireless and cable companies. Witness the struggles of CableCARD, which sought simply to allow HDTVs to connect directly to high-definition cable, and had to be limited to one-way digital cable in its first incarnation.

Unfortunately -- as Microsoft keeps repeating in its rationale for Zune -- the trend continues towards vertical integration, and more digital home contenders want to own the end-to-end experience. As services such as Akimbo, YouTube and GUBA showed in 2006, this is even true for niche or community-generated content. So, while the bridges keep improving, content and devices will not come together to enable sufficient consumer flexibility in 2007. The advent of new intermediaries that can reach out to both ends of the digital content value chain can facilitate a more flexible future.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.