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IFA 2007 Next Week; Sharp Prototype; Format War; Next-Gen Cable Plug & Play

August 26, 2007

Next Friday the IFA 2007 consumer electronics show starts, in Berlin. It's one of the biggest in the world, if not the biggest, and it lets all of us get an early look at the new products that will be released this fall. That is -- new TVs, Blu-ray players, and all the other goodies that will be gobbled up by consumers this holiday buying season.

Sharp gave reporters an early look at one of the prototypes they will be showing at IFA 2007 -- a 52" LCD flat panel that is not even an inch thick (or just over, depending on whose report you read). The prototype sports a 100,000:1 contrast ratio (in a dark room), an extremely wide color gamut (150% of NTSC), a fast response time of 4 ms, and power consumption half of regular LCDs (and a quarter of what plasma uses).

Thin like that and with those other specs, it sounds to me like they have an LED backlight, perhaps using one of the proprietary techniques for modulating LED intensity to match individual picture elements.

In any case, the prototype is a window to the future of LCD TVs (but not this Fall future). They're talking about the year 2010, when Sharp opens its $3.2 billion tenth-generation (10G) LCD plant near Osaka.

The 10G plant will produce glass that is 3.0 x 2.8 meters big. That compares to the 2.5 x 2.2 meter glass that comes out of 8G plants, optimized for 46" and 52" LCD TVs. 10G glass can be cut into either six 60" panels or eight 50" panels.

In case you haven't guessed, LCD TVs are getting bigger. The new Sharp plant will have an annual capacity of more than five million 60" sets. Mass production equals lower prices.

Samsung and Sony, whose joint 8G plant starts production soon, do not have immediate plans for a 10G plant of their own.


By now you all know about the earthquake that rocked the high-definition disc format war last Monday -- the departure of Paramount and DreamWorks from the Blu-ray Disc fold. If you haven't already, take a look at Dan Ramer's analysis over at dvdfile.com.

Fox and MGM compensated by announcing a large slate of Blu-ray movies for this fall.

You no doubt have also read that Microsoft was bankrolling the desertion to the tune of $150 million; they've made no secret of their desire to have the format war go on and on. They don't want HD-DVD to win; they just want it to survive long enough for there to be a stalemate. Microsoft's plans for a competing high-definition movie download service would not be well-served if Blu-ray caught on quickly, as it seems to be doing.

I'm still convinced that Blu-ray is technically the best format and will prevail. I'll buy a Blu-ray player when the interactive BD-Java machines come out starting this fall. Will it matter to me that there are a few movies I want to see that are temporarily only available in HD-DVD?

Considering that I've got more than 500 entries in my database of movies I'm interested in, and close to 300 I haven't seen yet, I don't think so. I have neither the money nor the time to buy or watch even a fraction of those 300 titles, and there are more than enough must-see Blu-ray titles here or on the way to keep me happy for years.

I guess if Microsoft couldn't manipulate the world, they might just decide to buy it, so we should probably count our blessings.


Finally, comments are in on the FCC's proposal to ensure that equipment used to access cable TV programming is available to consumers at retail. Specifically, the equipment they're talking about is called "bidirectional navigation devices," which could either be built into TVs or take the form of the familiar cable set-top-box.

So right away I've lost you, but stay with me.

A "navigation device" is the interface used to view and select your programming and service options -- accessing a program guide, selecting a channel, using pay-per-view and video-on-demand, etc. The cable company now determines the form and function of that, but since they've got a monopoly, they're not driven to innovation. The FCC wants you to be able to choose from a selection of competitive products that will take care of that function, but in different and better ways, and to have that device work with any cable service.

The official short name is "Two-Way Plug-and-Play."

Why does it have to be two-way? One-way is only a set tier of channels sent to your TV from the cable company; two-way is interactive, with messages from your set-top-box also being sent back to the cable company. The cable industry doesn't want to do one-way anymore; they can sell you more products (e.g. pay-per-view and impulse video-on-demand) if they have an interactive connection with you. It's a profit thing.

This proposed rule is part of a larger rulemaking initiative that was started in 1997 at the behest of Congress to inject competition into the cable set-top-box market, which has had none. The cable industry has fought this initiative tooth and nail all the way, and all we've gotten so far is one-way CableCARDs (which has flopped) and the "integration ban," which finally went into effect July 1, but has been diluted with waivers.

A joint cable/consumer electronics/information technology industry committee has not been able to make progress on a voluntary bi-directional standard in the four years they've been "working" on one. The FCC has lost their patience; they're now ready to impose such a standard.

Lacking broader agreement, the cable industry advanced its own proprietary standard (controlled by its CableLabs), and then a consortium of consumer electronics (CE) and information technology (IT) companies advanced their own standard. The FCC proposed rule asked for comments on the merits of each of these competing proposed standards. They also asked whether any rules adopted in this proceeding should apply to the satellite (e.g. DirecTV) companies and the new telecom video systems (e.g. from AT&T and Verizon).

Comments were due Friday, and as is the custom, all of them arrived on that last day. "Reply Comments" are due September 10. After that the FCC tries to figure out what they're going to do. And believe me, it's not going to be easy.

As I mentioned in an earlier story, the FCC wants to get this standard out in time for manufacturers to incorporate compliant bidirectional navigation devices into television sets and set-top-boxes they can bring to market for the 2008 holiday buying season (ahead of the end of the DTV transition). Your cable company's security gatekeeper would be downloaded into your navigation device (preferred) or be in some form of a CableCARD that would be inserted into a slot.

But don't count on the FCC getting a standard out in time for that -- one that is not challenged in court by one of the industry players.

The comments were wildly divergent; there is no common path for the FCC to take. The cable lobby said their plan was the only one that could work; the other side said it was unworkable. The CE/IT players supported their own plan (except for Microsoft) as did consumer groups. The new telecom video players (notably AT&T) said neither plan would work with IP-based systems; they said the government should let them develop their own technologies. The satellite companies said they had been left out of the standards-making process, and neither proposed bi-directional standard would work with satellite systems, which were inherently one-way (from satellite to customer's dish).

Back to Microsoft: they had been part of the CE/IT consortium that developed the alternative bi-directional standard to the point where it could challenge the entrenched cable industry proprietary standard. Now in their comments they've proposed their own third standard for IPTV applications, which would also work with computers.

Microsoft concluded: "However, neither the CEA proposal nor the NCTA OpenCable Applications Platform ("OCAP") proposal presents a technologically viable option for IPTV architectures, such as Microsoft's Mediaroom services."

"Microsoft's Mediaroom services?"

Well, does that sound like a competitor to disc-based movie distribution systems (i.e. Blu-ray and HD-DVD)? Do we see a pattern here? Divide and conquer? Muddy the waters?

How America will get its TV programming two years hence is being fought today. I anxiously -- but by necessity patiently -- await the FCC's final rule, and wish them great prescience in the meantime.


Until next week. . .