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30 September 2009

TV and phone makers decide on wired and powered connectivity

Just take your phone, take the TV out cable and plug it into the TV and watch some video? Good isn’t it? Now pull out the cable and hold it in one hand, and put the phone in the other. Which one is heavier? There’s not much in it.

That’s one of the two problems that handset vendors have combined to attack this week, putting their hopes behind the advanced HDMI chip designs of US specialist Silicon Image. The other problem is that video play out uses up the battery on the handset fast, if you take it to a friend’s house to play video.

Right now TV out is at a cross roads ‘ lots of phones have it, and it was a major feature of all the new releases this February at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and there are more and more HD video options on handsets ‘ they can create HD video, carry it, record it ‘ and yet the cable you have to carry around is bulky and playing it eats charge.

So this week three of the top phone brands in Nokia, Samsung and Sony (Sony Ericsson), along with Toshiba, got together to form what they call a Mobile High-Definition Interface Working Group, which hopes to takes some intellectual property belonging to US company Silicon Image and create an industry standard for something like HDMI out, for phones.

A key element for this cable is that it will work rather like a USB cable, in that it will power the phone, so that after you’ve shown a 110 minute film to your friends, your phone is fully charged instead of drained and unusable. That’s one feature that handset makers really have to build in, because offering a phone to an operator in the full knowledge that it will spend much of its time without vital battery charge for making phone calls or browsing the internet, would put off many operators.

And if you think about it, this can lead to many other use case scenarios. We’ve already heard about handsets that can be used as games consoles with the addition of the tiny Zeemote games controller, connected to the handset by Bluetooth and playing on the TV through the TV out socket. Well using your handset as a PlayStation must burn the battery as well, so a cable which offers back power to the handset will become vital anyway.

It’s bad enough that you have to take a TV out cable with you when you want to play out video, but having to remember to take your phone charger as well, almost makes it not worth putting a TV out socket into the phone in the first place.

The whole reason for all of this is that wireless connectivity between handsets and TVs is just not developing fast enough. We have a number of standards for video to accurately be delivered by wireless from device to device around the home, but none of them are quite ready for volume markets yet, and we’ve had some disasters, for instance the Wireless USB market came and went without much happening, and even pure Ultra Wide Band approaches to sending video around a home have never found wide scale implementations. There are other, more recently developed methods for sending video around a home, like WiGig, WirelessHD and Aminon’s WHDI, but all of these would take too long to bring to market for today’s generation of phones. They are coming, but not imminently, and once again are likely to create a battery drain if implemented on a handset. There are companies that swear that this can all be done in Wi-Fi, but perhaps not Wi-Fi driven by a handset battery, or at least not yet, which leaves us with a wired connection.

And if you have to build a wired connection and it has to serve as a phone charger as well, then why not try to reduce the thickness of the cable and the number of pins needed to support it and therefore make the entire cable a lot cheaper. If this can be achieved then no-one is going to have to take their TV out cable with them when they visit someone else’s house. If it was cheap it could become ubiquitous in every home, and be used as a universal connector from a TV to any CE device, be it phone, netbook, laptop, video camera or MP3 player. They ALL need power delivered from the socket to your TV to the portable device, and content delivered both ways, but mostly for playout on the TV.

People would ask, ‘Do you have a Mobile HD Interface on your TV?’ and when the answer was yes, phones could be plugged in with the full knowledge that they would not lose their charge. So we will have moved from having to arrange to take with you your charger and your TV out cable, to taking neither and the cable would just be dangling there like a spare Scart lead is today in most homes.

The interesting thing here is that this will kill a big chunk of revenue for the handset manufacturers, as they won’t sell anything like as many phone chargers, and especially not phone chargers which are esoteric and expensive with exotic connectors. But this is a dying trend anyway. This would become, as USB has become, a universal charger for all brands of handsets. It would almost certainly become common practise for people to come home from work and plonk their phones on some form of cradle on the TV and plug into the back of it, in an orderly queue of the family’s phones.

Of course somehow this has to find its way onto the product planning agenda of the TV manufacturers, and they may have other priorities, so some kind of pressure has to be brought to bear. The answer to that may be in the fact that the number one and number two TV manufacturers globally right now, Samsung and Sony, both happen to be among the leading handset vendors, as well as in this group. The third placed manufacturer of TV sets is LG, and it also makes mobile phones, and might find itself invited to join this group soon. Toshiba also makes TVs globally and although it now makes handsets, they have only recently begun to be exported outside of Asia.

If those companies commit to introducing a Mobile HD Interface, then other TV makers will have to follow. They simply have too much market weight in the same way that the Blu-ray sign ups had too much market weight to lose.

This new mobile connectivity standard, based on Silicon Image’s Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL) technology, will be defined, promoted and marketed by the Working Group as an industry standard and this will be open to anyone who wants to be an adopter.

MHL which already lets mobile phones, digital cameras and portable media players deliver HD content to TV sets, was introduced at the consumer Electronics Show in January 2008. So far it has required an MHL transmitter chip in the mobile device and a docking station or dongle, containing a bridge chip to convert the signal into an HDMI signal. If the MHL signal can be converted internally in TV sets, that would do away with the dongle.

These already use low-pin-count chips using something called a single data lane Transition Minimized Differential Signaling system to halve the number of pins to five and reducing power consumption to just 60 mW (MilliWatts) when in use.

It’s going to be a tough fight, and there is going to be at least one, maybe two alternatives suggested along the way, but when you have the manufacturing power behind two thirds of the world’s phones, and about the same percentage of the world’s TV sets, agreeing on a standard, it IS a done deal, no matter who argues. The biggest resistance, as usual is likely to come from Intel and any other vested interests in the PC world such as USB and potentially Microsoft and Apple.

The Group says a single-cable with a low pin count interface will be able to support up to 1080p high-definition (HD) digital video and HD audio in addition to delivering power to a portable device. The Working Group will organize a Consortium of founding members who will develop the standard specification.