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Set-top giants eye home networking

General Instrument and Scientific-Atlanta are trying to lay the groundwork for their technologies to hold court at the center of future digital living.

Two of the TV set-top computer industry's biggest companies are trying to lay the groundwork for their technologies to hold court at the center of future digital living.

At the Western Cable Show today, General Instrument (GI) and Scientific-Atlanta (SA), the two leading cable TV set-top box suppliers, announced they are developing devices capable of becoming the hubs that will connect a variety of forthcoming digital home devices.

Such "home networking" is See special report: 
When worlds collide expected to become a hotbed of product development in the next few years, as consumer electronics products go digital and become capable of talking to other household devices, including personal computers. The market is also being targeted by computer makers such as IBM and Compaq.

Sony also is keen on gaining an early foothold in this market, as evidenced by yesterday's announcement that it is taking a larger equity stake in General Instrument, purchasing 7.5 million new shares for $187.5 million.

As part of the agreement, GI will license Sony's home networking software, including its Aperios operating system, for use in GI's DCT 5000+ digital set-top boxes, which GI will offer to cable operators. GI said it will also promote Sony's home networking software as a way to implement a "plug and play" connection scheme for digital devices referred to as 1394.

Sony already sells devices such as digital cameras and its Vaio personal computers with 1394 connectors. Compaq also has begun to sell consumer PCs with these connectors. Sony, which has dubbed this technology "i.LINK," and GI hope this could enable a TV set-top computer to exchange data with digital camcorders, PCs, DVD players, and other digital devices.

Advanced digital set-top boxes will further provide high-speed cable-based connections to the Internet, interactive TV, and PC-like features such as advanced graphics chips, which allow for more sophisticated interfaces.

Though a large market for home digital device-based networks is by no means guaranteed, analysts see potential. In a recent report, Forrester Research envisioned a central home device emerging.

"Surf the Net or watch TV? With [interactive TV], consumers can do both. Build a camera into the cable box and the TV becomes a videophone link as well, drawing time away from telephones. As PC usage fragments among multiple computing devices...the interactive TV will reassert itself as the central entertainment, communications, and information appliance in consumers' homes," according to the report.

Separately at the Western Cable Show, SA and Avio Digital detailed plans for SA's Explorer 2000 digital set-top box, which hooks up to Avio's MediaWire home network.

The Explorer 2000 is one of the first digital set-top boxes designed to offer two-way communications with interactive applications, Internet support, video-on-demand, home shopping, and IP technology. SA distributes the set-top through 14 cable service providers in the United States and Canada, including Time Warner and Tele-Communications Incorporated.

Using Avio Digital's MediaWire, the Explorer 2000 set-top box will act as an interface for connected home theater components, PC networks, home security devices, and consumer electronics via existing copper telephone wiring at up to 88 million bits per second, according to the companies.

"It is becoming evident in the industry that within a few years, we will have in-home networks linking all manner of digital devices in the home," said Dr. Allen Ecker, president of Scientific-Atlanta's subscriber network sector, in a statement from the show.

"Digital interactive set-tops are the ideal focal point to allow in-home networks to connect to the outside world via the cable system," he added.