CES 2006 and the UPnP standard

One of the most interesting aspects of the recent Consumer Electronic Show for TVersity was the state of the UPnP standard and how well it is received in the market. What we found exceeded our expectations and we left the show far more excited about the future of UPnP than we were before, however we also found several reasons for concern.

Here are some of the interesting trends we spotted:

  • UPnP AV is no longer standalone; One unsurprising trend is that digital media adapters, which were very hot in CES 2005 were not so hot this year. In fact I can think of not more than half a dozen new DMA models and they were all introduced by established players in the market who also introduced other products in which UPnP AV was merely a feature. On the other hand UPnP AV functionality got integrated into many different devices and has shifted its role from the basis for a new product category to an enabling feature of existing categories such as DVDs, TVs, Phones, NAS devices and so on. All the companies that released new DMAs (such as DLink, NetGear, Buffalo, and Zensonic) had also released networked DVDs or NAS devices and emphasized those products and not the DMA.
  • UPnP AV in DVD players; Networked DVDs were almost exclusively based on UPnP AV. Some of you may know that there are two other proprietary solutions that are considered alternatives to UPnP. One of them has been created by Syabas (can be found in devices from Asian companies like IOData and Buffalo) and the other was created by Kiss and can be found in devices from Kiss (now owned by Linksys) and some other less known local European brands that licensed their technology. While in 2005 it seemed like Europe is divided between Kiss and UPnP and the far east is controlled by Syabas, with UPnP leading only in America, it is clear now that 2006 will be all about UPnP. Syabas, essentially admitting the inferiority of its solution, has added UPnP support to the middleware it sells and so new firmware versions for devices like the Buffalo Linktheater and the IOData Avellink essentially make them UPnP compliant. Moreover companies like Buffalo have made the switch from Syabas middleware to UPnP only middleware (e.g. in their Linktheater Mini and their NAS devices). At the same time, Kiss, despite its acquisition by Linksys, has not been able to spread their proprietary solution and to the best of our knowledge there was not even a single announcement in CES of a new company that is planning to release products based on the Kiss solution. Kiss however has demonstrated in CES that their latest models are compatible with Windows Media Connect, i.e. with UPnP AV.
  • UPnP AV in every TV; We were astonished to see how many new gadgets have built in UPnP AV support. We must have seen two dozen TVs with built in UPnP AV support, this includes names like Toshiba, Sony, Samsung, Philips, HP and many more less known brands. The rumor is that Apple will announce tomorrow a plasma HDTV with built in support for Intel Viiv, which is also UPnP AV based.

  • UPnP AV in phones and mobile devices; The Nokia N80 phone was a very pleasant surprise, not only that it is UPNP AV compatible but it works with TVersity as was reported to us by the Chief Designer of the Symbian Platform Development in Nokia (he also told us he was using TVersity at home and he was pushing Nokia labs to start testing their releases against TVersity!). We haven’t seen any other phones with UPNP AV support but since we have had many visits recently to our web site by Motorola and since Samsung has already introduced UPnP support in Televisions we won’t be surprises if by the end of 2006 the top three Cell phone companies will all have models supporting UPnP AV. Furthermore Nokia told us that they were seriously considering UPnP support for the Nokia 770 (which is a Linux based WiFi and bluetooth enabled, pocket size tablet) and we heard a rumor that Sony was planning to add UPnP support to the PSP.

  • UPnP AV Devices are going HDTV; All the new TV and networked DVD product announcements were for devices that support HDTV. This included support for HDTV codecs (with MPEG2 being the basic most codec and H.264, WMV-HD and Divx-HD as the more advanced ones) and HDTV connectors such as HDMI and component video. In this CES, HDTV was a must have and essentially all devices (except handheld ones) had to have HDTV support.

  • Storage is going UPnP; One very obvious trend was that every player in the NAS devices for the home and small office markets has now built in support for UPnP. This includes names like Buffalo, Netgear, IOMega, Linksys, DLink, Maxtor, etc. This is also an indication that UPnP Media servers have now two distinct markets, one is the embedded market and the other is the PC/Desktop/Server market. Although we do not have official numbers, it looks like TVersity is the leader in the PC/Desktop/Server market while other companies (like Mediabolic and Twonky) compete in the embedded market. This is not to say that we have no competition, if anything 2006 will bring much more competition simply because UPnP is gaining popularity, however we do feel that there is no other technology out there today that can match TVersity in its features, and that consumers come to acknowledge that and many of them make the switch from the media servers they got with their UPnP enabled product to TVersity.

While everything so far has been very positive to the UPnP standard there is also a serious concern as the standard has now many flavors which could essentially evolve into proprietary solutions. The flavors we identified so far are:

  • Intel Viiv; Intel has announced their Viiv platform, which although is based on the DLNA guidelines (some additional interoperability guidelines to handle issues not properly handled in the UPnP AV standard), it seems to be destined to take its own course and as I am sure Intel would love to see evolve into its own de-facto standard.
  • Windows Media Connect or Disconnect? Microsoft has released at the end of 2004 the first version of Windows Media Connect which was fully UPnP AV compliant with some necessary extensions to support WMDRM. However a year after, at the end of 2005, they released the second version which had no real new features other than the vague headline of “support for XBox 360”. Those of us that cared wanted to know if the XBox 360 was UPnP AV compliant and unfortunately we now know that the answer is NO. We spoke in the show with the CTO of Twonky and he told us that they were able to add support for the XBox 360 through reverse engineering and that the Xbox is designed not to work with any other UPnP media server other than Microsoft’s Windows Media Connect. Is anyone out there surprised?
    We are however happy to say that we had a very good conversation with the CTO of Twonky and we both feel that the two companies, being the real champions of open standards, should remain on friendly terms despite the obvious competition.

  • Apple is rumored to release a Plasma TV based on Intel Viiv; We will know if it is true or not tomorrow, however we mention it here since Apple is sure to either create its own flavor of UPnP or come up with something else altogether as it has done so far with its proprietary solution for streaming audio from iTunes to the Airport Express. Clearly, the UPnP AV standard is catching on and yet its success could also be its demise as companies like Microsoft, Intel and Apple may each try to take advantage of the interoperability it offers to promote their own interests while introducing their own proprietary extensions and keeping them unpublished, in order to block others. If you care about open standard and wish to see an open ecosystems in which innovative solutions from small companies and even individuals can prosper just like solutions from large companies (which tend to be innovative in terms of business models and new revenue streams and not in terms of benefits to the consumer…) then do your very best to encourage consumers to refrain from solutions that deviate from the standard and make sure that neither Windows Media connect nor Viiv become the new names of UPnP since this will be their gain and the loss of all of us the consumers.

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