Devices Go Beyond Digital Zone To Digital Home

Jan. 18, 2007
Abel is out with friends when he hears a song he likes. He uses the browser on his cell phone to find the track he wants and buys it. He downloads the song to his cell phone and e-mails it to his home PC. But trouble starts when he tries to move his n

Abel is out with friends when he hears a song he likes. He uses the browser on his cell phone to find the track he wants and buys it. He downloads the song to his cell phone and e-mails it to his home PC.

But trouble starts when he tries to move his new favorite song from the PC to his portable media player. The program he uses to buy and organize music on his PC and media player doesn't work with the digital rights management (DRM) used by his cell-phone music service. Ouch.

The digital media experience has come a long way in a short period of time—browser-based access to content, high-speed downloads, smooth syncing between PCs and portable media players (PMPs). But interoperability issues are often at odds with ease of use.

While industry-wide concerns won't be worked out overnight (if they can ever be fully addressed), significant incremental improvements can be achieved by the innovative application of programmable DSPs. Rewards will come to consumer-electronics OEMs that enhance simplicity and convenience.

DRM stands as one of the toughest challenges, and differences between DRM schemes and business models aren't the only reasons. Providers of premium content (such as hit albums and first-run movies) have to be satisfied with security before they distribute to a wider range of consumer electronics devices.

The upside of better protection? When more premium content is available on a device, the bigger the sales opportunity for both the content provider and the OEM. With music and video services compatible across multiple types of products—say, PMPs, PCs, and cell phones— digital entertainment fans can effortlessly enjoy the content they want on their device or devices of choice.

Stronger insurance against unauthorized use becomes possible when the ID of a device and the DRM keys that control access to digital media files can be authenticated, renewed, and de-authenticated securely. To prevent hackers from faking authentication and stripping DRM from digital media, PMPs, A/V receivers, and other products can apply next-generation DSPs that integrate protected on-chip memory and secure processing modes.

Back to Abel. Being a determined consumer, he makes the downloaded song usable by changing to a PC music manager program compatible with his purchased content. Now he tries playing his new music on the A/V center in his buddy's living room. When Abel plugs his media player into the A/V center's USB port, raw file names pop up on the center's display. He cues a song anyway. It won't play.

Consumers often are perplexed by incompatibilities in digital media formats, from A/V compression to content metadata (providing song title, artist name, and other information) to DRM schemes. Since no one format is universally accepted, multiformat support presents another opportunity for the consumer-electronics OEM.

However, flexible multiformat support requires a software-based approach to decoding and encryption/decryption that can be more complex to implement than hardware-based decoding commonly used in DVD players and other products.

New high-speed, programmable DSP architectures are changing the rules. These processors have optimized instruction sets with the capacity for complex functions like video decoding. What's more, these instruction sets are "converged," so they can execute functions as extensive as A/V decoding, DRM, network processing, applications, and the user interface in a single processor.

With a flexible processor that handles multiformat support in software, OEMs have the option to accommodate multiple audio and video formats, including MP3, AAC, AC3, and all flavors of Windows Media Audio. The multifunction aspect of this new breed of DSP also allows the end product to do the job with fewer ICs, producing designs that are smaller, lower power, and less expensive to manufacture.

In cases where the OEM can secure licensing, multiple DRM formats can be supported by select DSPs whose instruction sets can implement a variety of ciphers and hashes in software. Then the same consumer product could support DRM used by different digital music and video retailers, such as PC-based and cell-phone-based services.

As for Abel, he would certainly be glad to find and play his favorite song on his friend's A/V center. His happy thoughts would then turn to his next download and how he can hardly wait to upgrade to a dazzling new A/V PMP.

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