DLNA vs. HighMAT: battle for the multimedia home

In early 2000s two computer juggernauts embarked on mission to unite the world of traditional home entertainment and the exploding supernova of home computing.

Back then there was no Chromecast, no Roku, no Amazon Fire stick. Instead of using a slick smartphone app to listen to music you would run WinAmp on a PC to connect to a ShoutCast stream. Instead of watching a Netflix show streamed directly to your home, you would pop a disc in a player. Instead of uploading your vacation pictures to a cloud service you would burn a CD and mail it to your friend.

There was a chasm between content generated or, well, obtained with a computer on the one hand, and traditional entertainment hardware like stereo system or television set on the other. Both projects aimed to build a bridge over this chasm.

Two different products resulted. One of them is still in active use today, while another died in obscurity. The companies were Intel and Microsoft, and the products were DLNA and HighMAT.

What is DLNA technology for and how it can improve your life

Digital Living Network Alliance united several tech companies under leadership of Intel. The group produced a set of guidelines for sharing digital media among multimedia devices connected to a home network using either Ethernet or Bluetooth.

Later the guidelines were expanded to include the ability to consume content from sources outside of the home using the UPnP Application Management Service.

DLNA guidelines were concerned with three type of media: still images, audio and video.

DLNA media types and formats

These media artifacts would be stored on Digital Media Server (DMS) like a traditional PC or a Network-Attached Storage (NAS). They would be consumed by Digital Media Player (DMP) like TV, home stereo, Blu-ray player or gaming console.

HighMAT or High Performance Media Access Technology was much narrower in scope, aiming to solve the problems associated with accessing data on CDs. It was developed by Panasonic, which was called Matsushita back then (so this is where “MAT” in HighMAT comes from), and Microsoft.

From Panasonic service manual

This project identified the same three types of media: still images, audio and video, and intended to standardize a special format of data CD that would be playable on standalone CD players, DVD players and computers. This project created three levels:

  • audio only (WMA, MP3)
  • audio and still images (WMA, MP3, JPEG)
  • audio, still images and video (WMA. MP3, JPEG, WMV, MPEG-4)

The limitations of HighMAT could be seen right away: no support for AAC or LPCM, no support for GIF and PNG, no support for either older video formats like MPEG-1 and H.263 or newer formats like AVC H.264.

From Panasonic service manual

Furthermore, the standard has limited the bitrate for MP3 and lossy WMA to 160 kbit/s, and JPEG images to 6 MPixel and 3 MB. Panasonic claimed in the operating manual to a HighMAT-enabled DVD player that these tight specifications “give consistency in the way of reading data when general consumer products such as DVD players and PCs are used, and thus, it is easy to operate for the user”.

Up to now, there was no harmonized standard for playing digital content stored in CD-ROM formats (including CD-R) on consumer products like DVD players. Therefore, we used to have problems such as:

* There was no common play list or attached information on contents, which is called metadata.
* The data compression method differed according to the equipment.
* Because display and operation methods were different depending on the equipment, the play order of the content on the same disc could change.

- From Panasonic SA-VK81DEE service manual.

These are all valid concerns, but maybe Microsoft and Panasonic thought too little about users — and producers — of digital content. For example, here is a similar attempt by some Russian guys to offer music in MP3 format on a CD. These are pressed CDs by the way, made in 2000, about two years before HighMAT appeared. In fact, these guys started making them in late 1990s.

MP3 CDs with bitrates from 128 kbit/s to 256 kbit/s (1990, CDBoom.ru)

The discs have a folder for music itself. Often, a separate folder stores lyrics to all the songs. Sometimes there is a folder with guitar tablature. WinAmp is conveniently provided. There are also pictures and promotional information.

My DVD player navigates through this disc, plays MP3 files in the correct order, and displays images from the Picture folder.

OPPO-981HD DVD player navigating an MP3 CD disc

This means that Microsoft and Panasonic tried to standardize something that did not need standardization. And by the way, these MP3 CDs usually would go for higher rate than 160 kbit/s, sometimes all the way to 320 kbit/s. And all these discs are perfectly playable on my DVD player.

Even better, they are playable on my portable CD player, incidentally, also from Panasonic. The player is smart enough to recognize MP3 files, and to play them in alphabetic order without much fuss: file after file, folder after folder, in sequence.

Panasonic SL-CT582V playing an MP3 CD disc

So, HighMAT quietly died several years after it had been proposed, but DLNA lives on.

The alliance dissolved in 2017, announcing that it “has fulfilled its mission.” Its certification program continues to be conducted by SpireSpark International.

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