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Sony's Stringer touts "invisible" technology

Electronics companies are going to have to cooperate much more as they work toward a networked home, says Sony's Howard Stringer, a TV industry veteran.

LAS VEGAS--Electronics companies are going to have to cooperate much more in the future if the industry is to realize its dream of a networked home, the CEO of Sony Electronics told the Computer Electronics Show here today.

The electronics industry is at a crossroads, said Howard Stringer, CEO of Sony Electronics and well-known broadcast industry executive. Its future lies in developing technology that is almost nonexistent to the eye of the user, he said: Technology should be subservient to content.

"It should be invisible. The digital home must offer needed relief for a people weary and oppressed by vexatious VCRs and unruly remote controls," Stringer said--a jab that seemingly attacks Sony itself. "If we can manage to get technology out of the way of...curious and intelligent folk, we will all win."

Sony's i.Link--also known as IEEE 1394--for instance, is a significant step toward the home-networking goal. Like Apple Computer's FireWire, i.Link is a high-speed connection port that allows computers to hook into stereos, game players, cameras, and other entertainment devices.

The history of FireWire shows how difficult it can be to establish a standard commercially. FireWire was invented in the early 1990s and became an industry standard in 1995, but it is only being adopted by PC makers this year. New hope for the technology emerged just this week as Apple Computer has offered built-in support for the high-speed technology in its new computers, potentially opening a whole new market for peripheral computer devices.

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When worlds collide "Convergence won't occur inside a single box; instead, it will take place within the home network," Stringer said in a keynote speech at the CES convention, which runs through Sunday. "The question of whether the TV or the PC would emerge victorious turned out to be the wrong question."

While the industry faces unprecedented challenges, such issues are hardly new to Stringer, whose career has straddled the worlds of technology and entertainment for decades. A network television industry veteran, Stringer is former president of CBS Broadcast Group. Stringer, who began his career at CBS in the 1970s and eventually became executive producer of CBS Evening News, is perhaps best known for luring David Letterman away from archrival NBC.

But he got a full taste of high technology--and a somewhat bitter one at that--as chief executive of Tele-TV, a company created by Bell Atlantic, NYNEX and Pacific Bell to provide interactive video services. Stringer came to Sony after Tele-TV was disbanded by the telcos.

Bringing that experience to today's markets, Stringer said today that manufacturers are going to have to cooperate more tightly on developing, and rolling out, standards to win consumers over.

Can't we all just get along?
The digital television will be the "nerve center" of the home of the future, Stringer said. Home networks will connect dozens of devices ranging from TV set-top boxes, "smart" phones, and other gadgets in what he terms "the era of intimate computing."

Digital devices must be intelligent enough to recognize each other, anticipate user needs, and do tasks "without cumbersome commands and menus," Stringer said. Doing this will require the cooperation of a wide array of companies and the use of industrywide standards, he insisted.

As an example, Stringer offered up Sony's work with Philips, Matsushita, Thomson, and several other large consumer electronics companies on a Java-based technology called "Havi" for connecting DVD players, video cameras, stereos, digital VCRs, and digital TVs.

With this technology, which is set to be available for license this spring, "even the most dysfunctional homes could boast a seamlessly integrated home network. The machines would communicate well and get along even when the humans fail to," quipped Stringer.

In the consumer electronics industry, though, warring agendas threaten to derail the promise of the connected home, much as they caused the introduction of digital television broadcasts for ten years, he warned attendees.

One such roadblock to this digital nirvana is that new DTV sets can't directly receive digital signals from the cable set-top converter boxes now found in 65 percent of U.S. homes. As it stands, consumers will have to rely on antennas hooked up to their television sets to get DTV signals in their pristine, high-resolution state.

The consumer electronics and cable industry have agreed in principle on how to make this connection but are stalled on how to protect content--an issue near and dear to Sony, which has its own music label and picture studio that contributed a combined $2.34 billion in revenues in the most recently completed quarter.

"Comprehensive copy protection is absolutely vital before [Sony] gets totally comfortable with the digital VCR in the living room. Content providers must be sure that every recording device is not a potential factory for pirates," Stringer said, while likening copy protection to the technological equivalent of safe sex.

He took the opportunity to exhort the crowd to support a proposed scheme proposed scheme known in the industry as "5C" for the five companies involved.

One attendee, a consultant for a large retailer, groused: "It's great how he drew you in, talking about the promises of technology. Then he said, 'We're going to protect ourselves.'" The consultant, who wished to remain anonymous, noted that the studios are blocking release of devices such as DVD players capable of displaying crisp video images on new HDTVs because of copy protection concerns.

Although there is growing evidence of the cooperation that Stringer is calling for, significant battles remain in the digitization of the home. With cooperation, the industry's future will come quicker, and with it, the associated profits of new and growing markets.