Consumers Want More Home Networking

Here’s a little article from InformationWeek about consumers’ desire for more interoperability and networking options for their various personal gadgets.  Hahaha!!!  Well … in terms of networking, WiFi, Bluetooth, TCP/IP are just that.   All of the devices I have that use these protocols I can see on their respective networks.  When I remove DRM and other barriers I can push and pull data between these devices over their respective networks, too.  However, I would imagine for those that are not inclined to explore or are technically challenged, all of this networking stuff is daunting.

Because the electronics manufacturers want to lock consumers into their product ecosystems, the manufacturers are not inclined to make their products open to consumers.  Of course this never really works.  Successful products like the iPod work with a great many accessories and other non-Apple products and crafty people have come up with ways to “crack” the iPod so users can get around  DRM and reclaim the music they have purchased.  These products also tend to have a bunch of third party companies that make accessories and software for the devices.   Of, course it takes market dominance to begin with to have cottage industries pop up around a product.  iPod can thank the mp3 format, USB, and great product design for their success.  The glue, though, for interoperability are the mp3 file format and the USB hardware interface.  iPod took advantage of protocols that were already well established as universal.

So it seems to me that the foundation for device interoperability already exists.  It’s simply a matter of making it such that ordinary people can communicate with their devices over the common networks.  Centralized network devices like home servers and the third generation consoles like the xBox360 come close, now, to knitting everything together.  The problem is that these devices are not accessible to the lowest common denominator of consumers.  The wii comes closest to a device that is very accessible, but its hardware and software are not capable.  Additionally, it’s not clear to me that the tv or a device that is not on 24/7 should be the center of a household nework.  I was really hoping that the home server would take off, but now I understand that people really don’t understand the purpose of a home server.  When I think of a device that is usually always on and that people consider the center of home entertainment, then I think of the cable box and the DVRs connected to them.  Many of the latest digital cable boxes and DVRs are capable of being the household digital entertainment hub.  I don’t know how easy these devices are to use and whether many people take full advantage of their capabilities.  Do these divices seamlessly integrate into a home wired or wireless network without the user having to do any work?  Do they have the necessary hardware and codecs to play the most common media file types?  Once the xBox360 got the xvid and MPEG codecs, we could finally watch some of our downloaded anime via that device (can watch files packaged as AVI, but not MKV).

Once the hardware is established, then how do people access entertainment?   For folks like me, it is natural download entertainment from my favorite portals on the Internet.  I have my bitTorrent client set up with RSS feeds and the files are written to a specific folder on my home server.  When I want to watch something, I fire up a device and access that directory — that is, after I’ve installed the appropriate media player software and codecs on the device.  My husband taught me the basics of how to do this and the rest I learned while tinkering.  But how does someone who doesn’t have a handy spouse or the tinker’s spirit get to the variety of entertainment out there on the Internet?  The folks that are already using youtube and Hulu have already switched to their computers.  They have a different viewing experience than those that sit as family or group to watch the TV.  This can be a singular experience or an experience in which viewers watch while chatting with buddies online.  In my household we have connected our computer to our digital television, so we still have that TV experience.  But what of gaming consoles, cable boxes, and DVRs?  Well, I think in general to reach a broad audience, interfaces should look like something people are already very familiar with.  For example, people know how to flip channels and read a tv guide.  This is why the interface on cable boxes looks like a tv guide.  Given this, I would start by basing the interface on that.  People understand channels and it’s very easy to highlight a show and then push “play” or “record.”  I also think interfaces like “Netflix” are easy to use.  It is extremely visual and the suggestion algorithm eases browsing.  So if the remote control transforms into something like a wii remote, then it would be very easy to point and click on an interface like that.  Add a subscription service for  TV shows and you are good to go.  Behind the scenes, it becomes a matter of some folks putting together some “channels” to help organize the content.  Of course, this could be automated such that users past entertainment choices create personalized channels for that user.  It’s quite possible, in general, to get rid of scheduled programming and have all programming be “on-demand”.  This could change the cable and televised entertainment model all together.  Some thoughts:

1.  Are customers charged for bandwidth?  which will result in tension between the provider to keep files big and consumers who want the most bang for their buck.   Of course the providers would love this because they could tier prices and have a great deal of control over bandwidth usage.  This is not conducive to innovation nor is this in the best interest of the consumer and will cause folks to circumvent the system (piracy) to save money.  On the side of advertising, this makes things difficult because you don’t get direct metrics based on bandwidth alone.

2.  Charge by show.  There could be a price for each show or a subscription fee for a series.  With a subscription, providers and producers have hard metrics on viewership and can price products and advertising space accordingly.  To serve customers better, innovation in content delivery (transmission), image quality, and compression will pushed.  Security will be a problem because if I can see it, I can record it and share it outside of the subscription.

3.  Monthy charge, either tiered based on the number of shows watched, or channels, or whatever you want.  You get all the info and innovation from option 2 plus happy customers.  I imagine, though, even if this were implemented, someone would find a way to tier entertainment so users would pay a fee or have to watch lots of commercials for the popular shows.

Then it becomes a fight between the providers and the producers.  Who sells the commercials and who does the producer charge for “premium” programming?  Can the producer bypass the provider and go straight to the consumer?  Hahaha, and as always, who owns what?  Rebroadcasting content, sharing content, … yada yada …  Personally, I like getting bandwidth from the provider and content from the producers via the Internet.


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