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Digital Video Disconnectivity

Which has more clout these days, pro AV or consumer AV? Judging by the current and emerging digital connectivity standards, the consumer market increasingly determines the pro's choices.

Which has more clout these days, pro AV or consumer AV? Judging by the current and emerging digital connectivity standards, the consumer market increasingly determines the pro's choices. Even the PC industry is now calling a few shots, thanks to the fact that in applications such as digital signage and conference rooms, displays and projectors are basically just monitors for PCs.

DisplayPort is aimed primarily at PC-based applications, where it aims to replace DVI and VGA. So far, there's no vendor consensus about whether DisplayPort will become a key standard in pro AV.

DisplayPort is aimed primarily at PC-based applications, where it aims to replace DVI and VGA. So far, there's no vendor consensus about whether DisplayPort will become a key standard in pro AV.

Take High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI), which the pro AV industry has never embraced for reasons that include lack of field-termination options, scarcity of locking connectors, and concerns about content protection mechanisms. But by the end of this year, more than 105 million HD displays will have HDMI, according to In-Stat, an independent analyst firm based in Scottsdale, Ariz. To accommodate that growing installed base, PC vendors have begun adding HDMI terminals on their desktops and laptops. As a result, when working on installations that involve PCs, AV integrators increasingly will have to work with HDMI.

“Computers, mostly laptops, drive the pro AV industry,” says Darren Cheshier, CTS-D, an engineer at Conference Technologies, a St. Louis–based integrator.

On top of everything, systems integrators also have to deal with the fact that HDMI is just one of several digital standards jockeying for market share. There's also Digital Visual Interface (DVI), DisplayPort, High Definition Serial Digital Interface (HDSDI), and Unified Display Interface (UDI) — to name just a few. Pro equipment vendors are still on the fence about many of them, resulting in a growing field of contenders with no clear winner, let alone one capable of displacing incumbents such as VGA.

“We will likely see two coexisting digital standards in the market for the foreseeable future, with DisplayPort on computer sources and HDMI on consumer equipment,” says Joe Da Silva, director of product marketing at Anaheim, Calif.–based Extron. “However, given their proven reliability and performance, it is doubtful that traditional analog video formats will be going away anytime soon.”

Opportunity for DisplayPort?

Extron isn't alone in its belief that DisplayPort will become the dominant PC interface. The Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA) approved the initial version of the standard in May 2006, followed by Version 1.1 in April 2007. In late July, VESA held a “plugfest,” where vendors tested interoperability. By fall, it hopes to release a compliance and logo program aimed at making it easy for customers to identify and use DisplayPort products. Despite all of this activity, DisplayPort is coming to market slower than expected. VESA believed that the initial DisplayPort products would debut in the second half of 2006, but that didn't happen.

“I don't expect to see any products that customers can buy until maybe the end of this year or the beginning of next year,” says Bruce Montage, chair of VESA's DisplayPort Task Group.

The revised schedule seems achievable, based on vendor announcements. For example, in July, Samsung announced what it claims is the first LCD display with DisplayPort: a 30-inch unit that will be available in the second quarter of 2008. The wild card is whether the delay will give other standards time to establish so much of an installed base that DisplayPort has an even tougher time winning over vendors and users. So far, DisplayPort isn't creating a buzz among potential users, some vendors say. “I'm not getting much call for that at this time,” says Joe Gillio, associate director of display product planning at Sharp Imaging and Information Co. of America, based in Mahwah, N.J.

For the moment, DisplayPort appears to be partly in a chicken-and-egg situation: Vendors look at customer demand when deciding which connector to build into their products, but customers look at what options vendors offer when deciding what to use. Some integrators aren't seeing much — and what they do see, they don't like.

“I have seen nothing on [DisplayPort] other than what I have read on the Web,” says Conference Technologies' Cheshier. “At InfoComm, I did not see any manufacturer promoting it. It also has a connector that will be impossible to terminate in the field.”

DisplayPort is aimed primarily at PC-based applications, where it aims to replace DVI and VGA. The technology has the backing of major PC vendors such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard, yet AV vendors that count those companies among their customers are still taking a wait-and-see approach.

“Our opinion is that right now, it's too early,” says Matt Nelson, director of strategic business at Huntsville, Ala.–based Avocent, whose three largest customers are Dell, HP, and IBM. “There's just not enough adoption. Whether that will change, I don't know.”

Kramer Electronics is among the vendors that see DisplayPort becoming a key standard. “Many pro AV applications are PC-based; therefore, we believe DisplayPort will eventually be a dominant technology in the pro AV market,” says Clint Hoffman, vice president of marketing for the Hampton, N.J.–based company. “We also believe that HDMI will not vanish, and that it will retain its strength in the consumer and home theater markets, while battling the DisplayPort standard at points of crossover between the markets.”

That outlook already is influencing the designs of some Kramer products.

“Our current thinking is that products like a Kramer video scaler in the future should have both DisplayPort and HDMI connectors — and should be able to process both types of signals,” Hoffman says.

PC or Not Just PC?

Some analysts believe DisplayPort's PC focus means that its success won't necessarily come at the expense of other standards.

“That's not going to impact the TV market anytime soon,” says Alfred Poor, a senior research associate at Pacific Media Associates, a Menlo Park, Calif.–based analyst firm. “That's really intended just for the IT side. I don't expect it to have an impact on HDMI, certainly in the consumer space and probably in the pro space.”

Other analysts believe that DisplayPort has a good shot at building a following, at least among PC makers. If so, AV pros would have to learn how to work with it for applications where content is provided by PCs.

“The PC and notebook makers have been the ones that have really wanted to have DisplayPort,” says Max Bassler, who helped develop connectivity standards such as 1394 before founding Wasco, Ill.–based consulting firm Bassler Interactive Technology. “I see a need for it. Will it completely bleed over into the consumer electronics world? I think it will take time, but eventually it will capture a big portion of it. Our PCs still have VGAs. There's much, much better technology that's faster and has higher resolution.”

There's at least one reason why pro AV should keep an eye on DisplayPort's market share in the consumer space: Sometimes clients already own or have budgets that require products designed for the consumer market. If that situation becomes more common, it increases the likelihood that AV pros will have to accommodate DisplayPort.

“In years past, we saw some leakage of pro products into consumer applications,” Poor says. “Now, the tide has turned, and we're seeing a lot more consumer products in business applications.”

DisplayPort's backers are trying to grab a toehold in the pro market by designing the technology in ways that they believe will make it attractive for applications such as digital signage. “DisplayPort makes digital possible for those kinds of applications because of the long-cable capabilities,” up to 15 meters, Montage notes.

Longer runs are possible with repeaters, and backers have created a group to develop guidelines for using the technology over fiber and wireless.

“One big advantage of DisplayPort is that these things are being thought out as the standard is being developed, whereas with a lot of other standards, these things weren't well thought out because the technology wasn't there,” says Bob Myers, chairman of VESA.

How much it will cost vendors to add DisplayPort to their products and whether that cost will have to be passed on to customers is still a big question that needs to be answered.

“It's very difficult to understand what the costs will be, as so much intellectual property (IP) is left to the component manufacturers,” says Mark Fihn, head of Veritas et Visus, a Temple, Texas-based consultancy. “Molex, for example, has patents related to the DisplayPort connector, and already I've heard several complaints from other connector makers about Molex's planned licensing fees and terms. JAE, Genesis Microchip, and Intel also asserted IP claims in the original DisplayPort specification, and in the past weeks, the DisplayPort specification was revised to add IP claims from AMD. No one knows if even more IP claims will be added to the DisplayPort specification in the future.”

Momentum for DVI?

DVI is another key digital standard with one foot in the PC world. Some pro vendors see it as one of their best options — at least for the immediate future.

“DVI-I has a lot of momentum,” says Avocent's Nelson. “It's a good interface. It carries everything we need it to carry.”

Not surprisingly, not everyone agrees. That adds to the uncertainty in the marketplace about how the field of connectivity standards will shake out over the next several years.

“HDMI basically obsoletes DVI,” Bassler says. “People say, ‘Well, you've got DVI-I and all of these other iterations.' I'm sorry. On the cheapest, least expensive, Asian display products, you'll still find it, but it's not a mainstream product anymore. And because that was meant to be on PCs, that leaves this huge gap for DisplayPort [to jump into].”

Other industry-watchers agree that DVI's days are numbered. ”HDMI is the natural successor to DVI, so I do expect that DVI will begin to fade away rather quickly,” Fihn says. “There may be some interface challengers in the future, but HDMI seems to offer extensible solutions far into the future, so that displacement will be quite difficult, unless someone comes along and offers a significantly cost-reduced solution that is fully backward-compatible to the HDMI installed base.”

The uncertainty about DVI's future is leading to hedge bets among vendors, which are adding it but not always at the expense of other technologies.

“DVI is starting to show itself, but even that is using DVI-I or A rather [than] DVI-D,” Cheshier says. “I think the manufacturers are preparing for the future, but only recently have companies like Extron started to produce DVI-D line drivers or processing equipment. As expected, they also introduced HDMI line drivers, switchers, etc. Still, I don't see many sources in the commercial world that have HDMI yet, and only about 50 percent of laptops and computers have DVI-D outputs.”

Avocent is one example of a company that's trying to accommodate multiple standards.

“We chose to ship a DVI-to-HDMI adapter with every transmitter just because if they were going to have a digital media source, it was more likely that they would have DVI than HDMI, unless they're running an HD DVD player,” Nelson says. “A lot of the sources we see are a PC or a media player, and we'll see either DVI or VGA on those sources.”

Sharp is another vendor that's currently holding off on HDMI in favor of DVI. “The majority of our products now have DVI with High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP),” Gillio says. “Probably by end of this year, all of our products will. We're comfortable with 15-pin and DVI. If we do HDMI, I think it would be an additional input. I don't think we'd trade it for one of those other inputs.”

The DVI connector is a mixed bag, some say. Although it can be locked down, its size makes it difficult to pull. It also can't be terminated in the field, so using raw cable isn't a way to get around the size issue.

HDMI's Market to Lose?

Over the past few years, HDMI has built a following in the consumer electronics industry, where it's common on devices such as set-top boxes and DVD players. The standard now has more than 650 adopters, according to HDMI Licensing, based in Sunnyvale, Calif. One reason behind this trend is because it's showing up in more PCs.

Some integrators are concerned about the limited availability of locking options for HDMI connections. Avocent is one vendor that’s responding to that need by adding a screw hole. However, HDMI faces a variety of other concerns as it tries to build a following in the pro AV market.

Some integrators are concerned about the limited availability of locking options for HDMI connections. Avocent is one vendor that’s responding to that need by adding a screw hole. However, HDMI faces a variety of other concerns as it tries to build a following in the pro AV market.

“All of the major card vendors in every segment of the PC market are coming out with HDMI-enabled devices,” says Les Chard, president of HDMI Licensing. “Anything that's going to have an HD DVD or Blu-ray drive, like a notebook, is going to have HDMI. The most recent numbers I've seen have 36 percent of the entire PC market being HDMI-enabled by 2010.”

Some pro display vendors are waiting on the availability of panels with 120-Hz refresh rates before committing to HDMI, now in Version 1.3. (Chard doesn't expect another major version until sometime in 2008.)

“I think the industry in general will go with 1.3 because of its bandwidth features,” says Gene Ornstead, director of advanced TV products at ViewSonic, based in Walnut, Calif. “We're being told that 120-Hz panels won't be available in quantity until maybe the early part of 2008. Because of the panel's faster refresh rate, then you really do need the 1.3 to give you the added bandwidth.”

The HDMI connector poses a few challenges for pro applications. One is that it's complex to the point that, like the DVI connector, field termination isn't an option.

“Because of the very high data rates that go through it, you have to be very careful in how you terminate it,” says John Lopinto, president and CEO of Hauppauge, N.Y.–based Communications Specialties. “Otherwise, you'll get continuity at low resolutions but not at high resolutions. We've seen this in factory-terminated DVI cables. So field-terminated HDMI would be very dicey, at best.”

Another connector-related issue is the limited availability of locking options, such as screw holes. Locking connectors might not sound like a market-differentiating asset — after all, the pro AV industry already uses other non-locking connectors — but wide support for it would be another way for HDMI to ingratiate itself in the pro community.

“The pro market isn't crazy about HDMI right now because it's not a locking connection,” says Sharp's Gillio.

Another potential concern is HDCP. Although HDCP isn't unique to HDMI, some vendors and integrators say they're encountering problems, such as when a source requires HDCP but the projector or display is slow or even unable to accommodate.

“One thing we've learned from those [industry inter-operability] tests is that if your HDCP isn't quick enough in its timing, your TV could shut off before it gets the feedback from the sending device,” Ornstead says.

Cloudy Crystal Ball

What do pro AV manufacturers look at when deciding which connectivity standards to support? The short answer is, everything, including customer feedback, analyst reports, and what other vendors are — or aren't — adding.

Vendors also frequently look at the cost of adding a technology. One obvious example is licensing fees, which were an issue with HDMI to the point that they were reduced — from $15,000 to $10,000 annually —to address small vendors' concerns. A less obvious cost is related to the time and resources spent going through a standard's certification process, which typically takes months. Depending on the vendor's timetable, that can mean delays in shipping new products or being able to make a major trade show announcement.

Avocent encountered that situation when getting HDCP certification for its wireless HDMI product. “It delayed our product by a couple of months in terms of production,” Nelson says. “Every month that we're not shipping costs us money.”

Those delays also can affect customer perceptions — and not just about the vendor. For example, integrators might come away from a major trade show believing that most vendors aren't planning to offer products that use a particular connectivity standard, when there are actually several going through certification but can't be announced yet. What's the bottom line? If there's one certainty about digital connection standards, it's more uncertainty.

“I can point to long-gone formats like laser disc that never made it to the pro AV market or had a long-lasting run in the consumer market,” Cheshier says. “Will DVI, HDMI, [and] DisplayPort be like laser disc? The pro AV market will always wait to see if a particular format will stand the test of time.”

Tim Kridel is a freelance writer and analyst who covers telecom and technology. He's based in Columbia, Mo., and can be reached at tim@timkridel.com.



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