February 2, 1999

Starting Again

It's been a long time since I've done much writing on this site. Rather than apologize or make excuses I'll simply suggest that writing comments to me would help convince me that there are indeed readers out there. I do, however, want to devote more effort, to more coherent writings such as explaining the IP infrastructure. I'm also experimenting with the use of Trellix for a version of the IP Everywhere essay.

I do encourage you to look at the longer essays.

The Coming Revolution in Consumer Electronics

The major function of a consumer electronics company is packaging technologies for sale. Very little of the content of a consumer product such as a phone system or VCR or television is unique. A company like Panasonic or Sony is more a way of marketing a mixture of components shared among a set of companies.

This is comparable to consumer electronics before personal computing when companies would assemble computational components into devices such as word processors and calculators. As computing became inexpensive, it became advantageous to build large volume generic computers and to differentiate them with software.

The CE industry has been spared this commoditization by carefully crafting the combination of elements into coherent products.

But this is about to change. The digital TV tuner is a harbinger of this change. Now that it is completely digital, it can be implemented fairly generically with customization being done in the software. In the same way, logic embodied in gears and belts is giving way to computation.

The other big change is coming from the IP infrastructure which generalizes connectivity. The use of IP among components is, perhaps, more significant than its use across the web. Not only does it allow a VCR and a television to communicate, the elements within the device can use IP as the medium for cooperation. While IP itself doesn't dictate the protocols it does allow the manufacturers to focus on the protocol without having to justify a special infrastructure.. There is then little differentiation between the built-in and the external components.

Intelligent elements are already starting to communicate with over-the-wire serial protocols within devices because it makes the design and manufacturing process more effective. One can mix and match elements and rapidly create products out of standardized components.

The web protocols provide standard ways to move the user interface from a complex set of controls – one for each function – to shared user interfaces on display surfaces. Protocols such as XML allow the separation of the user interface itself from the protocols for operating devices.

Consumer Electronic companies can avail themselves of the same trends and make better products. In fact, they take pride in their ability craft coherent products out of the plethora of possibilities. But it is unlikely they will make all the right choices. By opening up their protocols among the components, they allow others to add capabilities and increase the value of their products. But they also allow for competition.

Some will thrive in this environment by having others increase the value of their basic products and components. But doing so requires that they change with the times and create products for mixing and matching.

This is not entirely new, the early "HiFi" systems were component systems. One would mix an amplifier, a tuner, a record play (without the amplifier) and speakers. Later other components such as tape decks and even CD players became available. But the components themselves become standardized and so low-priced that the advantage went to create complete systems.

The counter example is the Set Top Box which has managed to frustrate all attempts to make it simple to tune TVs and to operate VCRs. The effect, however, is to limit the growth of the market by preventing others from adding value. In the end, there is less value created and we are all the poorer for it.

Intellectual Property

Intellectual Property is another "IP". The MPEG-3 standard is creating lots of excitement and concern by providing a common standard for sharing music on the Internet. This can allow an allow an explosion in the availability of music by removing the barriers to distribution. But it threatens those who try to make a profit by charging for the distribution of use of music.

While I'm in full sympathy with the right to make money selling intellectual property, exercising too much control makes it difficult to innovate. In music, the problem is not simply controlling availability, but in building upon music as in making it more accessible by copying it to a file server instead of only being allowed to play it from the original CD.

This is the issue is raised by digital devices such as the Diamond Multimedia RIO which liberates music from a given media such as CD and allows one to take advantage of new technologies to store the music anywhere. We will soon see MP3 storage devices in cars which will be much more convenient than CD juke boxes and which will have many times the capacity.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I have confidence that there will continue to be a music business but one that is more decentralized with more options. But the herd effect will still allow big names to thrive if popular culture focus on a common set of songs.

The video industry has thus far resisted this trend and, if anything, is attempting to retrench. DVDs are the high (or low) point of this trend. On one, it is simply a digital storage device with gigabytes of capacity. But the DVD standard and licensing makes video a special case. Rather than just bits, the video must be controlled by a special player that makes sure you show the right content in the right place under the right conditions. You cannot copy the DVD contents to a convenient file server on a home network but must handle the original CD each time.

How will we be able to add value in terms of being able to view movies in new venues or on new devices? By allowing others to innovate and enhance the value of content, new industries can be built upon the innovations which add value to the original content.

The good news is that innovation is a very powerful force. If it can't improve incrementally, we may be forced to make major changes. If traditional movies are off limits, new tools might, for example, allow others to directly create their own video as part of authoring. The script itself would be animated instead of relying on an intermediate industry to produce it and then control the results of the production.

Jini Revisited

It's no surprise that many of the CE companies have bought into Jini. It's a safe bet on their part after their own efforts to create a device-independent language have come to naught. But I still remain skeptical. Just as Java was more a cleanup of C++ rather than rethinking building programs, Jini is like Echelon and focuses on some plumbing problems rather than the fundamental semantics of cooperating devices.

We really don't know how to make devices work together. It's like the end-to-end problem in networking. Just providing a reliable transport in the middle doesn't deal with all the other complexities of making communications work. The applications must take responsibility for the overall function with the communications links being just part of the problem.

To the extent that Jini tries to solve the old driver problem for Windows, it doesn't get at the more fundamental problems of ad-hoc cooperation among devices throughout the world. It is reminiscent of the Java fantasy that one needn't solve hard problems. Instead, one could just create a mixture of class components on the user's machine and assume they will work together. JavaScript errors (yes, I know, JS is not Java) are evidence of the problems of trying to ignore the complex problems of interactions in disparate environments.

HTML was successful because it was simple and passive. The browser was able to interpret the passive description and compensate for errors since it had an overview of the document and some sense of the intent behind the tags. Where HTML did contribute value was in creating a semantics for presentation. Rather than just fancy graphics primitives, it spoke in terms meaningful to those creating the pages. And because it was text-based, it wasn't limited to the limited views of the authors of editing tools. Programmability does have its place in allowing extensions at the frontiers and in giving professionals tools for solving complex problems. But it entails major risks and should be avoided when possible. This lesson is lost on those creating more and more complex versions of HTML. But this is no surprise since such standards committees have a tendency to attract those with the most interest in embellishing. Early HTML was spared this by the modesty of its goals and the limited capacity to create complexity in what was seen to be an experiment.