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Connections 2005

Connections is the Digital Home Conference & Showcase. It is put on by Parks Associates and CEA. It was held in the Hyatt Hotel at SFO, May 11-13, 2005. I attended this show last year, so it is interesting to compare the industry's progress in home media networking.

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 once again the biggest sponsor, but they did not dominate the show as they did last year. These companies were big at last year's show but were missing or had a much smaller presence this year: IBM, Sony, Philips, Texas Instruments, and GE. They were replaced by Microsoft, HP, Motorola, AMD, and some startups.

The components of the Digital Home are all moving forward. The introduction of Multiroom DVRs was cited as evidence that the Digital Home is becoming real. More and more homes are getting broadband, computers, wireless networks, and digital televisions. However, these systems are not being integrated. The pieces are coming into place, but they are not connected. Home networks are rarely used for home media integration. It is similar to the situation with HDTV sets, most of which are not used for watching HDTV programming. People are not using products in the way that product planners are intending.

The problem is that the complexity of the Digital Home is greater than the value. Motorola proposed a system that moves programs from the TV to the stereo to the car stereo as you walk around. The technical challenge to implement such capability is interesting, but the value to normal people is extremely small. And that assumes that it actually works. As technology gets more advanced, people seem to get more skeptical. I think that Microsoft has damaged confidence in technology. There were complaints at this conference about Microsoft's unreliability, and about TV sets that crash and need to be reset but lack controls for resetting. People are becoming dissatisfied with badly designed products.

Motorola said that we must educate consumers about the value of the connected home, but I think it is the industry that needs the education. Sneakernet is less complex, more reliable, a lot cheaper, and less affected by DRM problems.

Mock ups

Intel and Yahoo showed demos of how a Digital Home UI might look.

Intel's presentation was very nice, visually. The screens were uncluttered and TiVo-like. They made extensive use of animated scaling which gave the system a 3D feel. It featured annoying, intrusive advertising that they called an Interactive Ad-based Business Model. The UI would be very effective in a world of 8 TV channels. It will fail to scale in the real world. The demo demonstrated an affection for technology that most consumers do not share. The demo put Intel's interests ahead of the consumers' interest. For example, I don't think that interactive ads on the TV are going to be tolerated. The web will always do a better job. I think it makes more sense to have the TV remote control record interest in ads and products into the browser's As Seen on TV folder. Intel is pursing an obsolete advertising model. Also, they confuse work with leisure. They enjoy working with technology, so they do not understand the difference.

Yahoo's presentation was not attractive. They had done no visual design, but they had done a lot of thinking about the user experience. They believe that a program guide that looks like a thousand line spreadsheet will not work on the TV. I think they are right. So they are experimenting with other ways of finding programs. Their demonstration was based on Yahoo's Messenger and Community services, making it possible for people to learn about programming by observing what their friends watch.

DRM

The speaker from Cisco said "Anything we can imagine we can now do." This statement is false. Consider DRM: We can imagine a DRM system that allows consumers to painlessly enjoy all of their Fair Use rights, while at the same time protecting the copyright holders from infringement. It is becoming clearer that it is not possible to build such a system.

A DRM system can look like a broken system: It is designed to cause certain operations to fail. "If people are aware of the DRM system, then we have failed." This statement was repeated by several people, including a speaker from MPAA, who also said that DRM systems will be compromised, and that interoperability of DRM systems is absolutely necessary and is a very hard problem. They have not given up hope that the DRM problem will be solved. They hope that DVB or Coral will perform a miracle this year. It is now understood that bad DRM systems will create piracy, not prevent it.

The speaker from Macrovision did not appear. They said it was because he was dealing with a "business emergency". They did not say what the emergency was. I think it was that a French Court has found that Macrovision's copy protection products are illegal in France.

Remote

Last year there was talk about the Triple Play, meaning the bundling of telephone, television, and computer networking services. This year they are adding mobile services to the bundle and calling it the Home Run or the Grand Slam. These people obviously do not understand the game of baseball.

The amount of mobile bandwidth is increasing and its cost is rapidly failing, which will enable new services. Some of these services will include video, but it is not clear that people will want to watch TV of really small screens. Cellphones are getting more and more new features, including WiFi, near field communications, PDAs, and GPS, in addition to Bluetooth and cameras. It is being compared to the Swiss Army Knife. This large feature set could make the phone very complex to use. People do not like complexity.

Near field communication will allow using cellphones as digital wallets. Waving it near a Point of Sale terminal can perform a transaction.

It was suggested that the cellphone becomes the media remote control. It has two-way capability and a screen, using WiFi to connect to the home network. Similar remote controls tend to be very expensive. The cellphone is expensive, but it is highly valued in its other functions.

Thomson bought a company called Gyration which makes a gyroscopic airmouse. They are using that technology in a media remote controller. There was also UI technology from Universal Electronics and OpenPeak.