Sunday, February 15, 2009

The computing world meets the home electronics world

One would think that computers and data networks can be easily integrated with home electronics like Hifi systems and TVs. Not so. Try hooking up a Hifi to your iTunes collection. Even if you are able to pipe the audio from the computer's sound card into the Hifi's line-in, its hardly convenient to browse and select songs on the computer and have them play on the Hifi. Computers are still lean-forward devices that require active user participation with keyboards and mice. I want to listen to music on my Hifi and browse my music collection sitting on my couch with a remote control. I want to control the music without having to unlocking the computer's screen saver and then using the mouse to control the software music player. And yes, I want to listen to my music with the fidelity that my Hifi offers.

Its interesting that content like movies, music, etc., produced primarily for home electronics, has moved from home electronics to computers and networks but the opposite movement of computing and networks features into home electronics has been slower. One could argue that computers can be easily programmed to mimic home electronics (e.g. software media and DVD players) whereas home electronics have to implement things in hardware - a more complex preposition. But modern electronics is easily capable of integrating computing and networking into products given how modular ASIC technology has become. Most home electronics has digital control circuitry since the 90s. These things are being controlled by computers for the past 2 decades! Then why aren't these computers interfacing to other computers and the big I(nternet)?

In my opinion, the reasons for this relative one-way street between computers and home electronics are more business and consumer related than technology related.

  1. Silo thinking and protecting markets: For the home electronics industry, one living room = 1 Hifi + 1 TV + 1 DVD player + 1 Home theatre... Home electronics makers are reluctant to provide interfaces to connect up devices, especially digital interfaces like data networking capabilities, because there is scope to squeeze out redundancy. Today most living rooms have 3 audio amplifiers (TV, Hifi, home theatre) instead of one. But how long can this redundancy last if all music could be noiselessly (digitally) piped into one amplifier?
  2. End users' lean back leanings: Home electronics buyers were people in their 30s-70s who were not too comfortable dealing with computers and Internet technologies. On the other hand users who used computers for entertainment were mostly younger. But an increasing number of people are totally at ease with the concepts of computing and data networks.
  3. The computer vs. home electronics experience: There is certainly a difference between watching a DVD on a laptop and watching one on a DVD-TV setup. Up until recently this was enough to sway many toward home electronics. But the gap has narrowed significantly now. My wife's Dell XPS laptop comes with a remote control! Acquiring content is more convenient over the Internet (iTunes, Netflix, etc.) instead of acquiring it for home electronics ( store).
  4. The other side: Unlike home electronics, the computer and telecommunications industry have been pushing any software application that consumes CPU, disk-space and network bandwidth - i.e. - music, video, and TV.

But things are changing. Our shiny new Denon M37 Hifi came with a USB port proudly placed on the front panel! The new war of the electronics world and the computer world. Or their confluence.

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