UPnP: the saviour of connectivity

It's easy to whinge that too many cooks are spoiling the digital home broth.

But the big companies - Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba and the like - are so fixated on developing their own standalone product lines, few have given any real thought to how they can be connected together. How many TVs have an Ethernet port? How many PVRs can pull content off of a PC or a networked storage device?

As a result, many people feel that the digital home is an unnecessary luxury. For others it's a disappointment - an optimistic catch-all tag for a gaggle of competing technologies and devices that just won't talk to each other.

Think of it as a digital version of the United Nations. There are lots of big ideas, some heartfelt promises and lots of goodwill, but bugger all meaningful action.

It's tempting to say that what the digital home market desperately needs is an arrogant super-chef with a monopolistic master plan, a company with a vision that's grand enough (and pockets that are deep enough) to force a platform through.

Perhaps we'd forgive the dictatorial dominance of Microsoft or Philips if it meant that networking technologies were simple to set up and they actually worked.

But it's easy to forget that we already have a platform for connectivity. It's called Universal Plug and Play or UPnP.

Networking the home

"UPnP technology", explains the UPnP forum, "is all about making home networking simple and affordable." It's effectively a set of networking and web protocols, encompassing TCP, IP, UDP, HTTP and XML.

By basing UPnP on these widespread technologies, it can take advantage of existing networks (wired and wireless) and be supported by any operating system, programming language and device.

As it exists today, UPnP can already be used in the digital home to share music, video and photos between compatible devices, such as Roku's SoundBridge, D-Link's DSM-320RD media player and Pinnacle's ShowCenter 200.

Interconnectivity is managed by UPnP server applications, such as Microsoft's Windows Media Connect, TwonkyVision or the Philips Media Manager software that's used by the company's PC-friendly Streamium range.

The UPnP Forum currently promotes the idea that the PC or Mac will sit at the heart of the home, host to a vast archive of multimedia content. You can take advantage of it today.

Plug a ShowCenter 200 into your TV and you can browse digital photos stored in your PC's My Pictures folder. Buy the Philips SLA 5500 and you can broadcast your favourite MP3 and WMA tracks to the stereo in the kitchen.

In short: UPnP bridges the gap between PC and consumer electronics (CE) devices. This interconnectivity is what the digital home is all about and the UPnP Forum boasts 765 members, from consumer electronics and computing/networking giants to home automation and printing/photography specialists.

The saviour of connectivity

UPnP is here and it works. But it could be better. For starters, it's not a mainstream product. Before you can browse those digital photos on your TV or play MP3s on your kitchen stereo, the relevant application software needs to be installed on your computer.

Then you need to specify where this software can find your files, confirm your network settings, enter any relevant passkeys etc.

This is precisely why the UPnP Forum's Holy Grail is 'zero-configuration' networking, an almost effortless connectivity between devices.

This means that a device would be able to dynamically join a network, obtain an IP address, announce its name/type, convey its capabilities to other devices, and learn about the presence and capabilities of others.

And this process will be automatic. You won't need to install device drivers; you (hopefully) won't need to understand or even hear about IP addressing.