The Future Should Be Now

On December 21, 2010, in Consumer Advocacy, Personal, by Rob Levandowski

As I sit here, I’m listening to Christmas music piped from my Mac to my home stereo over my home’s Ethernet network, under the wireless remote control of my iPad. To most people, this sounds like an incredibly geeky accomplishment—perhaps even science fiction brought to life.

The thing is, despite this feat of digital integration, I know there’s so much more that my house should be able to do, but can’t… and most of it is due to legal or policy restrictions that do little except inhibit innovation and preserve outmoded business models.

For instance, both my TiVo and my Blu-ray player have network connections. Neither, however, can play videos that I purchased from iTunes. Everything with a video output seems to support Netflix nowadays; where’s the AirPlay support? For that matter, why can’t the entire industry agree on a standard for sending high-def video locally over TCP/IP, and implement it everywhere?

My TiVo used to be able to record shows that it thought I’d like to watch. Since Time Warner implemented switched digital video, forcing me to accept a buggy “tuning adapter,” that function works rarely if ever, and almost never manages to find the high-def channels. Of course, it’s a bit of a crapshoot if some of those high-def channels will tune, or if the tuning adapter will punt on them. The sad thing is that the tuning adapter is little more than a customized cable modem, and I already have one of those in the house. There’s no technological reason why the TiVo can’t send its tuning requests to Time Warner via TCP/IP. My opinion is that Time Warner will take any action it can get away with that makes TiVo ownership painful, in hopes of renting its own substandard DVRs to customers instead.

TVs now come with Ethernet support to retrieve movies from Netflix and YouTube. Imagine if you could also use this capability to send video signals within the house: Networked televisions could all draw on the same feed from your TiVo to let you watch a show as you wander from living room to kitchen to laundry room without them being out of sync, and without huge investments in video distribution infrastructure.

Gigabit Ethernet switches are cheap. HDMI splitters are not.

I bought the VGA cable for my iPad. I could use it to put presentations on my TV, or YouTube videos, but not movies I bought from iTunes; apparently I’m not allowed to watch anything at resolutions above 480p in analog form any more, as I might bootleg videos that way. (Of course, if I’m technically competent enough to use an iPad and a VGA adapter with my television, I could probably find a way to copy that video in digital form if I were truly so inclined.)

There’s a vast market for “universal remote controls.” The technology in all my entertainment-center remotes is identical; why do I need to spend even more money on integration? Why can’t vendors sit down and create a universal standard for commands, the way that USB has a universal standard for keyboards and Bluetooth has a universal standard for headsets? For that matter, HDMI was supposed to enable this, by letting components talk to each other and share command information: insert a disc in a HDMI-equipped Blu-ray player, and it could tell your audio receiver and your TV to make appropriate settings changes, and the TV could pass back remote-control commands it receives from its remote. In practice, this technology only works if all your components come from one vendor, and even then it’s often half-baked.

There’s so much that could be done with our existing technology, if only we could keep scared businessmen from prohibiting it.

I’m not a rabid open-source advocate of the Stallman camp, the type who believes that all software must be free of charge and free of restrictions. Open-source software has its uses, and there are places where proprietary software is necessary to ensure growth of the ecosystem. Whether the software is free or not, though, the protocols need to be free and unencumbered. Proprietary devices are more useful, and thus more likely to be profitable, if purchasers can use them in novel and unanticipated ways. In the modern world, what your widget does isn’t as important as how it plays with others.

I only wish that consumer-electronics manufacturers would realize this.


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