Web Informant #277, 15 January 2002:
The new digital home hub


Last week's announcements were the first salvos in the expansion of the mere home PC beyond just computing purposes. The sexy Apple iMac, Microsoft's Freestyle and Mira technologies and delivery of the latest Sony Vaio desktops all portend great things for the well-connected home. The trouble is, while each of these efforts have some promise, all are ultimately doomed to failure.

The reason is simple: most of us already have a digital hub for our homes, and it is called a TV. Well that isn't being totally fair: we have home theater installations that involve TV, DVD, VCR, game console, cable box, receivers, speakers, and CD players. But the TV is the component that has more status and more face time than the others in most homes, let's face it. There isn't enough room in the living room, or home theater surround system, for a PC to poke its ugly head into this mix. And any successful innovation for a digital hub has to start with the TV, not the PC.

Apple, Microsoft and Sony take their respective computers and operating systems and then build the remaining components around it, but as I said, this isn't going to fly in most American homes. We want our (M)TV, as Mark Knopfler once said. Anything that takes away from the TV experience is going to be a problem. And while it is nice that many new computers come with DVD drives built-in, no one is going to want to watch a DVD movie on their computer for very long. Let me restate that: unless you are willing to spend several thousand dollars for a new computer screen, you can't even come close to the monitors available for a quarter the cost for just watching TV.

TiVo has the right idea: add computer-type components, but keep the user interface squarely (or with a 4:3 ratio) on the TV set. For those of you unfamiliar with this component, it is basically a PC with a honking big hard drive that records your shows on the disk and plays them back for you. These folks have forever removed the "flashing 12:00 syndrome" from the VCR -- you know, where you don't know how to set the VCR up to tape your show. TiVo does this automatically, and with a pretty cool interface that anyone can understand.

But let's see what both Apple and Sony have in mind for us. (Microsoft has lots of promises, and I get to them in a future essay once I try out their technologies.) I haven't used the new iMacs yet, but I have tried out the latest Sony Vaio MX desktop, which retails for about $2800. The high-end iMac is only $1800, which is about the right price given what it does. Both machines come with a so-called combo optical drive: this drive can write to both recordable CDs (at 8x) and DVD-Rs (at 2x) and play both music CDs and video DVDs.

The Vaio has so many connectors on the back that it will take you a long time to figure out how to hook everything up. There are the usual connectors for Ethernet, keyboard, mouse, and modem. Then there are the unusual connectors for speakers, like you would hook up speakers to your stereo, with ordinary speaker wire. This is because the Vaio, like the iMac, comes with a built-in stereo amplifier. (The Mac has an internal 18 watt stereo amplifier, comparing nicely with the Vaio's 20 watt amp.) And two very nice speakers come included, something you would expect from Sony. Also on the back are spots to hook up an FM antenna, USB and firewire connectors, and choice of three separate video connections: standard VGA, digital video, or coax TV. Unfortunately, you can only choose one of these at a time, unlike the Macs that allow multiple monitor connections to operate concurrently.

The front of the Vaio is also filled with various do-dads. It has slots for PC cards, MemoryStick cards, and MiniDiscs, as well as duplicate USB and firewire connectors so you don't have to hunt these down on the back of the unit.

But what the Sony doesn't have is decent software, and this is where Apple's potential leverage and value-add can come into play. Sony includes a bunch of applications with its computer: there is PicoPlayer for watching ordinary TV; SonicStage for listening to music from the built-in FM tuner or from digital MP3 files or audio CDs; DVDit for producing your own DVDs; DVgate and Movie Shaker (along with Windows Movie Maker) for capturing digital videos and making your own movies; and NetMD for recording music on the MiniDiscs. None of these applications come close to the quality of what is available in the Mac universe, in terms of ease of use, simplicity, dependability, functionality, and features. Apple's software includes iTunes, iDVD, and iPhoto.

I tried with MovieShaker to import some video footage and then save it as an MPEG file to my hard disk. After watching the screen count down the number of minutes to save the file, and then getting stuck on the last minute, I realized that this isn't a piece of software ready for consumer use yet.

The Sony runs Windows XP, and Microsoft is making so much of a big deal about XP's capabilities in terms of storing digital music and video as you can see from the press releases from the eHome link included above. Yes, you can burn a CD without any additional software, but you can't burn a DVD-R without using one of the programs mentioned above. And while the unit I got had both MusicMatch Jukebox and Windows Media Player, neither are really as good as Apple's iTunes. As I mentioned in WI #274, iTunes is still one of the best music management programs around, far better than just about anything available on Windows.

The Sony also comes with SonicStage, which allows you to tune its built-in FM radio tuner, play music from the MiniDiscs or CDs or any other spot you may have stored your music on. It is a terrible interface, and full of bugs. As one example: I placed a MiniDisc that had been recorded by a friend's teenager in the machine, and it started up the first song. No sound came out. I click around, press some buttons here and there: nada. Only after I bring up some other audio application and start up some music there does the tune from my MiniDisc fill my speakers. Again, Sony has signed up with the not-ready-for-prime-time players.

I was really hoping that the Sony would be a triumph. It looks cool. It has all this stuff on the outside that a gadget freak like me can get involved with for hours at a time while postponing real work. But it doesn't help the TV experience, and you would think that a company like Sony would eventually figure this out. As Rich Dean, a commentator on National Public Radio spoke about this weekend, we don't want our TVs and stereos running Windows, or even MacOS: the TV and stereo are the only home appliances that don't need to be periodically rebooted. Let's keep them that way.

The real problem with the digital home hub is that there are so many wires to deal with: there is Ethernet, to be sure, but also speaker wires (and if you have more than one set of surround speakers, that is a whole another trick to hide all of that in your walls too), digital coax for audio and cable TV, optical connections for higher-end DVD components, ordinary RCA jacks for the rest, and don't forget power cords too. Getting all these cables from one place to another isn't easy.

In the meantime, all of us will muddle through this the old fashioned way: we'll power on the TV and sit on the couch and watch something entertaining.

Self-promotions dep't

I'll be speaking at two events in the upcoming weeks. Tomorrow at the Free Agent Forum in New York City, I am on a star-studded panel examining business management questions for independent business people.

And I'll also be giving two different speeches at the Washington, DC COMNET show on January 30th: one on the future of Windows, and the other on "Firewalls: Securing the network from the gateway to the desktop." COMNET also coincides with Linux Expo here in NYC: if you are going to either show and want to connect with me, let me know your schedule.

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David Strom
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