Douglas Crockford

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Connections 2004

Connections is the Digital Home Conference & Showcase. It is put on by Parks Associates and CEA. It was held in the Wyndham Anatole Hotel in Dallas, May 5-7, 2004. Unlike the NAB and NCTA shows, this show is more speculative and visionary, being concerned with business that does not yet exist. The focus of the show seems to be five years into the future.

Most of the speakers at this conference had to pay for their chance to speak. As a result, most of the speeches tended to be shortsighted and self-serving. Even so, this is a useful conference for understanding the current state of the convergence around the Digital Home. Intel was the biggest influence at the conference. Also present were IBM, Sony, Philips, Texas Instruments, and GE. The Broadcasters and Cable and Satellite Operators were not a significant presence, so the show had a heavy Computer Technology/Internet bias. It was a surprise then that Microsoft and HP were not at the conference, since they were very visible at NAB and NCTA.

The Digital Home is said to be the next step in the evolution of home entertainment after DTV and HDTV. It will combine television, computers, and networks, as well as smart appliances and home security. It is the merging of capabilities that people already have. It is expected that greater value is created by the merging.

There were a number of important recurring themes.

"Content anywhere, anytime, any device."

Nearly everyone shared this idea that people should be able to acquire content and then use it on all of their devices for their own pleasure and at their own convenience. This includes routing programs around the home on the digital network for viewing on any display in any room. It also includes the use of portable viewers and systems in automobiles. It might also include the vacation home and the office.

This is important because consumers will naturally expect to exercise reasonable rights of Fair Use, as they did in the old media..

There are many interconnect schemes, including ethernet, coax cable, proprietary wires, powerline, and wireless. It is unlikely that any one scheme will win. More likely, each home will use the scheme (or schemes) best suited to the situation. This will place an architectural burden on components to be prepared to connect in many ways. The diversity is good for consumers, but could potentially make the systems more expensive or more difficult to buy and install.

Protecting the rights of the copyright holders

The second theme called for some form of digital rights management. There are currently several proposed DRM systems, which all have different models of rights management which are often limited to particular types of content or situations. All of these systems assume that they are the only DRM system. They are incompatible with each other. This is a very complex situation. So far, there is no suggestion that the Government attempt to legislate or regulate this matter. The feeling is that industry can do a better job, and that the market should sort this all out.

In some cases, the goals for DRM may be impossible to achieve. For example, the Analog Hole may not be closeable in a way that will be acceptable to both consumers and the Studios. Another example of this tension: One of the most popular features of the TiVo DVR is the 30-second skip feature for deleting commercials. The Scientific-Atlanta version does not have this feature in its STB because much of a Cable Operator's revenue comes from advertising. They want their Viewers to be happy, but not too happy.

Easy to use

The third theme was stated many times in many ways: Design for the less tolerant consumer. Consumers want solutions, not technology. In particular, the DRM system must not be noticeable. You need some way to help the user to become comfortable with all this stuff.

In one panel it was recommended that consumers should be able to "access thru a common UI and one remote control." In another panel it was agreed that such a goal is not possible because generality brings complexity. We saw a number of media UI systems, and none of them had the right balance of expressive power and ease of use.

It was said that "consumers do not want to become IT experts," and then we saw several vendors of bridges and middleware, which is a very IT-centric approach to system design. We saw several home wiring diagrams that looked very much like IT network maps. It was suggested that consumers might want to hire expects who help them design and assemble their Digital Home systems. I think that is a really bad idea if this is to go mainstream.

Clearly, there are several difficult, unsolved problems. I am convinced that the marketplace winners will not have a complete, consistent solution, as desirable as that would be. Instead, the winners will satisfy consumer expectations of quality and value, working with legacy media systems as well as the new stuff, which works as well as possible with other new components, while minimizing complexity.

There has been virtually no progress in UI design over the past 10 years. In that same time we have seen huge improvements in hard drives, network bandwidth, large displays, and video compression factors. This is worsened by the fact that Manufacturers practiced deliberate incompatibility in things like remote controls. It would have been easy for the Manufacturers to come up with standards for IR signaling and button encoding so that any remote could work with any set. They chose not to do that. Consumers have tolerated this bad behavior up to this point, but it makes the integration with new systems unnecessarily difficult.

Landmines

The DRM issues get increasingly complex. Here are some examples:

You have your life's video collection stored on a DVR's hard disk. Most people do not back these things up, and some systems cannot be backed up because of DRM or other issues. If it fails, all of the media can be lost.

If you are using a cable DVR, the content belongs to the cable operator, not to the consumer.

If a couple splits up, how can they divide the digital property?

If the industry does not deal better with such problems, there is a chance that consumers will revolt, and DTV will fail in the market the way DAT (Digital Audio Tape) did. Everyone is attempting to strike the proper balance, but no one has come up with a foolproof system that works from both the consumer's point of view and the Studios' point of view.

John Scully (former CEO of Apple Computer) said that there were 3 phases in the evolution of the Personal Computer industry:

  1. curiosity
  2. useful
  3. indispensable

He observed that the leaders in one phase do not always survive to the next phase. Some companies will disappear. All companies must adapt in each phase, and are in constant risk of disappearing.

The Studios know this, and are attempting to use the Computer Industry to shield themselves from this risk. The Studios can survive and thrive with HDTV, just as they did with television, pay television, videotape, and DVD. Intel called upon the Studios to "build innovative business models that take advantage of the new technologies offering incredible choice for consumers." This is not a message that the Studios want to hear. They do not want to have to think like computer companies. Computer companies think that everyone should think like computer companies. The biggest problems now are not technological, they are political, even religious. Consumers are in the crossfire in battle over models of business thought.

There was a complaint that "there are two many cooks in the kitchen." The systems are getting complex in order to accommodate the interests of all of the companies that want to participate in the integration. Who is looking out of the consumer's interest?

Trust

There was talk about "trusted communication" within the "trusted domain". I think this will become a serious long term problem for the industries because the Model of Trust is all wrong. The industries do not trust consumers. The Studios, in particular, think that consumers are pirates and criminals. The industries want systems that fundamentally mistrust the people who buy them, serving the interests of the industries over the interests on the consumers.

I think this is not a good strategy. I think that when the implications of this are fully understood, consumers will reject systems with unreasonable DRM features. Consumers will invest in the Digital Home only if it creates value for them. They already have televisions that work pretty well. To take the next step, the value proposition must be clear and unambiguous.

This important idea was reflected in the title of one of the sessions: "How to ensure that anti-piracy does not become anti-consumer." Unfortunately, the conference did not deal adequately with that topic.

The trust issue is further complicated by the recent problems with email spam and internet viruses. If the Digital Home is connected to the internet, and if the Digital Home is the holder of the family's digital wealth, then the consequences of inadequate computer security are greatly increased. I feel that that is the more important trust issue and it is not being addressed. Once again, the consumer's interested are not represented.

Optimism

Generally the tone of the conference was very optimistic. The industry is gaining momentum, and there is much confidence that things will work out. There is a feeling that these products will be very important, and that the market will be very large.

Standards

Before the conference started, I attended the quarterly standards review meeting of the Continental Automated Buildings Association, a trade group concerned with smart buildings. They are interested in home media because of the growing importance of home networks. I heard reports on several projects, including oBIX, the Open Building Information Exchange), ECHONET, the Energy Conservation and Homecare Network), and Versatile Home Network).

The most interesting was the HomePlug Powerline Alliance, which is working on home networking over powerline. Their current standard can run up to 14 Mbs over the house electrical wiring. They are working on HomePlug AV, which is intended to carry multiple HDTV signals, running 70-80 Mbs. With this technology, the set top box does not need to be placed near the monitor. The monitor has only a single wire that carries power, content, and control. This has the potential to significantly simplify setup, eliminating the rat's nest of wires. It will also be good for portable sets.

There are many other groups that are working on various aspects of the Digital Home:

IEEE 802.11n is developing a wireless specification with sufficient bandwidth and QoS characteristics to carry HDTV programs. This could also be simplifying. A company called Bermai is showing a preliminary form of the technology.

UPnP, Universal Plug and Play is an adaptation of Intel and Microsoft's Plug-and-play for consumer electronics.

Digital Home Working Group is concerned with home networking and interconnect.

Digital Transmission Copy Protection is an Intel copy protection scheme.

Internet Home Alliance is made up of computer companies, manufacturers, and retailers.

OMA, the Open Mobile Alliance is mainly concerned with cellphones, but they have a DRM scheme that they are hoping to migrate to other digital media.

DVB, Digital Video Broadcasting defines the video standards in Europe and much of Asia. They have a DRM scheme that they may try to bring to the US market.

FireWire, IEEE 1394 is an alternative to DVI.

There are many other standards organizations out there. The number of them is quite bewildering.

Conference Notes

Keynote

OpenPeak

Plenary

Bermai

Intel

Wind River and Red Hat

Global Inventures

DigitalDeck

Philips Semiconductor

Broadband home activities (at least weekly)

Digital 5

How to ensure that anti-piracy does not become anti-consumer

Reaching Consumers

Out of the box

Digital Home

Sony

Intel

Texas Instruments

SBC is not here because there is an impending strike and management is locked down.

Parks did a phone survey on HDTV. They found that 20M homes reported that they had HDTV. But only 9M enhanced TVs have been sold, and most of those are not attached to any HDTV signal. There is a great amount of confusion about HDTV. [This raises a question: how do you sell HDTV to people who think they already have it but don't?]

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