What turns the set-top into the hub of a home network is i.Link, Sony’s version of Apple’s FireWire high-bandwidth interface. The i.Link connection can transmit data at a speedy 400 megabits per second, and Sony already includes it on some camcorders and the VAIO notebook. Last May, Sony teamed with seven other consumer electronics companies, including Philips, in announcing a standard specification-known as home audio-visual interoperability, or HAVi-that should let these companies’ products all talk via i.Link. For consumers, the bottom line on Aperios/HAVi/i.Link is better entertainment: You’ll be able to download the latest Mariah Carey single from the Web via your TV set-top box, route it to your digital video disk player, and be boogeying in no time.
Of course, Bill Gates has his own plans for your living room. Not only is Microsoft promoting Windows CE as an alternative OS for set-tops, but along with Intel, the Redmond empire is pushing its Windows-centric alternative to HAVi called Home API, which can control a home’s lights, thermostat and stereo-from the safety of the PC.
The convergence war isn’t quite as simple as TVs versus PCs, however, since Sony’s vision for your living room doesn’t necessarily rely on a set-top box. “What’s going to be interesting is home networks where devices are capable of advertising their presence and their capabilities and working together cooperatively,” says Rodger Lea, the CSL grad who directs Sony’s Distributed Systems Laboratory in San Jose, Calif., a 70-person outpost of the Suprastructure Center that monitors U.S. developments and supports Sony’s U.S. product groups. “One of the key things we’ve tried to achieve with HAVi is that [like the Internet] it’s very distributed-we don’t want to rely on a single device to be the controller in the home: Any device can be the controller. This is very important for a consumer electronics company which sells a range of appliances. It’s obviously less important for a PC company, which has a very PC-centric view of the world.”
But the situation is evolving almost daily. In the latest twist, Sony and Microsoft have actually joined hands, along with a score of other firms, to advance yet another standard-Universal Plug and Play-based on the protocols that govern the Internet. “What you’re looking at is convergence. What used to be separate turfs are becoming a single market, and there is a huge struggle for who will dominate,” says MIT computer science professor Carl Hewitt, who once taught alongside Tokoro at Keio University and spent time at CSL. “Bar none, the biggest challenge for the CSL is to lead Sony through this paradigm shift.”
It’s a challenge Tokoro is looking toward with confidence. In the future, says Tokoro, “Sony will not only be a leading-edge consumer electronics manufacturer, but also a company which provides network service infrastructure as well as services on the network.” And not just any networked-consumer electronics company, he asserts-the market leader. And his vision for CSL is no less bold. He wants his un-Japanese organization to become the “world’s number one” place for doing computer science research. The next few years will tell whether he’s succeeded, and whether his California-style transplant can lead Sony into the age of the Internet.