Interop: the future of hardware

The recent success of Airplay has given the mainstream public a glimpse at the future: generally dumb devices that can receive information from smarter ones.

Electronic Consumer Hardware

If you have a stereo or a set of speakers in your house, you’re dealing with technology that hasn’t really changed that much in almost a century. In the same way, TV sets have seen little evolution in the way of being smart over the last 50 years: when you think about it, the biggest steps in TV have moved from black & while to color (in the 70s), cathode ray tube to plasma and LCD (late 90s), and analog to digital (early 2000s). In each case, the focus has been on the picture and not so much on the logic to receive and display information.

While new models of television of radio are introduced on a yearly basis, the fundamentals behind them are essentially the same and the features that are introduced are, for the most part, marginal improvements.

However, over the last 4-5 years, a quiet revolution has been underway in the hardware business with the addition of two apparently innocuous components making their way through into a lot of the more recent version of new devices: USB drives and internet connectivity (either wired or wireless). This has made it possible for the core software components of those devices to be upgraded, either by downloading the upgrade on a USB drive and plugging it into the consumer device or automatically in the background via the internet, opening a whole new world of possibilities.

The remote experience

A radio station in the 1920s used a knob to find the right signal and today it’s a button. The clarity improved by moving from AM to FM and HD radio but the user experience is basically the same. For TV, the experience has moved from having to turn a knob on the TV screen to turning a knob on a device that was connected via a cable to the TV to pressing a button on a wireless remote control. The interface has not changed much, except for adding more buttons to allow access to more complexity.

Meanwhile, an increasing amount of touchscreen devices are starting to populate home, whether they are mobile phones or tablets and there is now a slew of software that allows for operating some of the more complex technologies out there. Using simple infrared adaptors, those devices are now allowed to share their own smarts with TV sets and radios, pushing the creation of simpler and more adaptable interfaces for remote controls to increasingly becoming software based solutions. As software evolves, it can be upgraded easily and include new functionality without getting rid of the devices that consume it.

Hardware is a platform

In this instance, we are seeing software trumping hardware. Short of the dependence on certain physical components being natively included in hardware devices (for example, the ability to support certain forms of communications like infrared or short range radio), the hardware does not really need to get upgraded unless its primary function (eg. showing a picture or playing some sounds) is itself in need of an upgrade. And one could see a time when the receiving hardware would receive software upgrades that allow for this interoperability to be a smoother experience because hardware is a platform.

A group of technologies around interoperability have made it easier for this phenomenon to happen. While few people care about such standards at HTML5, HTTP, TCP/IP, WiFi, and DLNA, they can serve as the building block of the future.

Imagine a television, for example, where every channel would be served through an internal web server that rendered everything on the screen via a web page with an HTML5 embedded video player. All of a sudden, the TV screen would become a giant web browser in full screen mode, allowing to not only access any content on cable or broadcast TV but also any content available on the internet.

Add a layer that would allow for throwing HTML5 applets on top of that screen and you would have a standard compliant approach to developing things for television. Throw a webGL interpreter in there and you have something that is drastically more advanced than what any TV in 2011 can currently do. Now make this layer addressable as a web service standard and you could not only see other companies incorporate it but also see an explosion of support from the development community.

Standardization is they key to TV’s future

Today, developing for television (or send streaming audio to a stereo) is an often frustrating experience, forcing developers to encode content so that it meets the requirement that each TV or set-top box manufacturer has set forward. This often complicated landscape has left most developers avoiding it because the return on investing in a single platform just isn’t there. A way to battle this is through standardization of the underlying interfaces. Since the 1990s many people, myself included, have pushed for a standard language to merge television and the web.

These efforts need the support of TV manufacturers and the understanding from said manufacturers that open standards will not only lift their industry but potentially fuel another area of growth for their offerings. As more and more applications get developed on top of a standard compliant deck, there will be increasing demands on the part of the developers to give access to other parts of the hardware, which could be completed via paid software updates. Hardware manufacturers would then find themselves in a world where they could make money on the initial hardware they sell but also add extra revenue by turning on extra functions through software sales.

Lack of standardization creates a winner-takes-all market

Apple has an early lead in the audio market, with Airplay (and its support from many hardware vendors). For example, in our house, we have equipped several rooms with Airport Express adaptors connected to powered speakers or stereos. Apple had initially locked Airplay to Apple only devices, but an ingenious company called Rogue Amoeba put out a piece of software called Airfoil that allows us to play from any source we can find on a computer. It would be nice to get such functionality on our mobile phones and tablets but, because Apple is locking up its system, it is unlikely that such thing could happen unless allowed by Apple.

An open standard that reproduces such functionality could not only hamper Apple’s ability to lock people into its ecosystem but could also help proliferate the rise of inexpensive devices that can be addressed from the internet.

In this case, as in the case of TV, we could see a single closed proprietary standard emerge and create an early lock-in for the owner of that standard. However, if there is one lesson the internet has taught everyone in the computing industry, it is that open always trumps proprietary in the long run. Early platforms may get early wins, but eventually, the open standard disturbs their marketplace and destroys the proprietary aspect.

Some people may consider the the receiving devices for new content as dumb devices but I would argue that they would fall in the category of smart devices: after all, isn’t the smartest person in a room generally the one that first listens and only speaks their mind after receiving appropriate input. Maybe we should create a new category, calling those wise devices instead of smart ones.

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