Saturday, April 2, 2011

Take Two Tablets and Call Me in the Morning

Alright, they're everywhere now. I've seen them in San Francisco for the past year, but San Francisco doesn't really count - it's sort of a technical data point outlier. (What other city can you safely say that you've seen not one, not two, but 10 guys biking around town with webcams on their helmets "lifecasting" for Christ's sake?)

Now though, I see them in downtown New York: walking around the streets, in restaurants, bars, browsing in stores, on Wall Street... you see them too, I know you do: In Milwaukee, Amsterdam, Sydney in east bum-f**k Minnesota...they are everywhere: the Tableticians. Like Moses coming down from the mount, they're consulting their tablets for everything from the weather to local restaurants. Business travelers are trying (struggling in most cases) to slim themselves down to just their tablets. People who don't have one, want one.

You can get your television on them. Your music. Your social net. The New York times just erected the first "holy crap this might actually work" paywall, and USA Today and CNN's apps are available on iOS and Android. Books and magazines have already begun the switch. (Although, I've written about my own issues with reading on one, but these problems haven't really stopped anyone from adopting tablets as readers.)

The world is turning into an episode of Star Trek. Finally.

For the record, it's not just the iPad. To be sure, the Jobsian Tablet is the dominant force, of course, with its overwhelming share of the market, and will be for at least the next year. However, its no longer the only game in town. About every 10 tablet users I've seen walking around the NYC are pulling Galaxy Tabs out of their pockets. I personally own a Xoom, and have talked about it ad nauseum.

OK - so They Live Among Us. Got it. I've accepted it. I think its fair to say I've embraced it. But seriously, what the hell are they?

Are they, as some people purport, oversized phones? Not really - the use case is much different. (Even if they had voice service, a tablet is something you take out to study, to ponder over, to read...not something you take out to quickly use and shove back in your pocket.) Are they an evolution of the PC, as Steve Job's is trying to proclaim? Not really - try to use one as for business document creation, for instance. I can't really write this blog post on the Xoom without dragging along a bluetooth keyboard, mouse, and stand to hold the screen...and then, what's the damn point?

It's this last idea that is the most interesting - and probably the most salient. Back in the last decade, tablets were attempted before by none other than Microsoft. They weren't a failure....well, not exactly...but they weren't very popular either. Confined to specialized niches, like hospitals and factory floors, these early tablets never caught on with the general public for one very important reason: Microsoft tried to force the laptop use case into a portable form factor.

Microsoft tried to train people, both through marketing and through their operating system extensions, that these devices were just like laptops, except they had a screen you could interact with directly. So, in the public's mind, these machines had to perform like laptops - which, very few of them did. To keep the cost down, at least a little bit, the raw computing power of the machine was reduced in favor of the electronics for the touch screen.  For those who may have seen the benefit of them as portable devices, this resulted in a device that was far too expensive - many of them topped $2500 - and even at that price point they were not powerful enough to perform tasks normally attributed to laptops. 

People thought twice: even in 2005 you could buy a hell of a laptop for $2500. 

When Apple entered this space in 2010 - and, sorry, but I chose my words carefully: Apple entered the space, they didn't create the space - they did so with a sense of redesign that they learned from their previous years of making the iPhone: Keep the device simple, and to the point. This is not something to replace your laptop, nor is it something to augment the laptop. This was to be something that had the same relationship to a laptop that a book had to a typewriter. This was a device for you to consume your media, not create it.

I misunderstood this basic principle myself. Back in early 2010, I wrote a commentary about the iPad called the MacBook Air, Mark II. I pegged the device as a "tweener." Neither iPhone, nor MacBook. And as a tweener, I reasoned, it was confined to that simple content consumption space - and therefore destined to satisfy just a niche market.

What I failed to recognize was that content consumption on a larger-than-iPodish-screen was exactly what people were looking for. I also failed to realize that it came about at exactly the right point in our history - the iPad would have been a niche product back in the early 2000's because there wasn't a lot of content to consume on it. There was digital music, but digital video hadn't yet caught on the way it has, and digital books were just a niche market confined to glowing PDA screens. In fact, tablets back in the early 2000's had no choice but to be full-featured laptops: other than MP3s there were no tiny, digital media files to consume. There were no app stores to deliver small, tightly integrated applications and wifi speeds were too slow to stream anything meaningful over the air.

So what does that make tablets? I don't buy into the "evolution of PCs" theory - but perhaps it is the evolution of something else. I just confessed to being wrong back in 2010 about consumers wanting a content consumption device. I also suggested that we are in a unique time in history - we are at a point where all media - printed, recorded, photographed - is digital. Gone is papyrus and printing presses and kodachrome and beta max. Everything is bits. Everything every written is available online, every note warbled can be found, every movie...every television show.  What if tablets are not just a media consumption device, but they are the penultimate media consumption device?

What if tablets - in all of their flavors - is the evolution of all things informational? All things entertainment? Is that how historians 100 years from now will write about this moment in time? Probably - but chances are they'll write it with something other than a tablet....

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Of Course, Of Course...It's the Famous Mister EDid

My life with a permanent Windows Media Center as my central "TV hub," began back in 2007 when I upgraded all of my home components to Vista. (You can read about those upgrades very early in this blog.)  Before Vista, Window Media Center was confined to XP, which meant there were problems with the system with regards to multiple streams, user interface, etc. In essence, XP Media Center was a toy (sound familiar?), and home entertainment components were still pretty crude devices when it came to interactivity: there was no nice way to have the components operate with more than one remote reliably, devices didn't understand what they were connected to, and multi-zone systems were in the stratosphere of the very rich - or at least the well to do - and even then those systems required intervention from a CEDIA installation expert if you wanted to be audacious and add a new DVD player.

However, things began to change pretty quickly at this point. Components began to catch a clue as to what was on the other end of previously-dead wires, remotes began to work and play well with others (although, that is still lagging and will never be completely solved until most components have an IP hook), and a old standard for displays called Extended Display Identification Data, or EDID, began to be taken seriously by not only display manufacturers, but systems connected to displays.

The idea behind EDID is a simple, yet powerful, concept immediately familiar to computer engineers. It's a simple handshake protocol that allows one device to ask if anyone is at the other end of a wire, and get an acknowledgement. Well-behaved EDID compatible displays not only say "yes, I'm here," but identify themselves in gory detail. Again, this is a familiar concept to anyone that's ever done client-server application work, but to the consumer electronics companies this was a magical, mystical idea. (Device acknowledgements and uni-directional, stateless remotes singlehanded kept home theater components in the realm of wizards for decades. I have my own theories about this almost willful ignorance which revolve around OEM A not wanting to play nice with OEM B via a standards committee so the consumer would be compelled to by exclusively from the same OEM for all of his/her components. Too cynical?)

In the blog posts involving my move from XP Media Center to Vista Media Center, I explicitly call out my first encounter with EDID. I had a first generation Sony plasma TV that was connected to my Vista Media Center through a direct DVI connection. The first gen Sony and the new Vista had an EDID communication problem. You can read about in that blog post if you're interested, but the short story is: the Sony plasma did not implement EDID standards correctly, and would not identify itself again to the Media Center once the plasma was put in standby and then revived. It would send the "I am going into standby signal," but never told the Media Center it was awake when it was brought back from standby. The end result was that the Media Center thought the TV was off, so never sent a video signal. (The only solution at the time was a hardware one. I bought a device from Gefen for $60 that stored the EDID from the plasma when it was first turned on, and then continually presented that EDID to the Media Center so it never realized the plasma was in standby. Idiotic, but simple.)

Flash forward to a later in 2007 - I started a company in LA, and moved myself from the east coast to the west coast. In the process, I bought a new plasma (a Pioneer Elite 60") and a new A/V Receiver, a Sony 5200ES which not only did video switching, but converted lower resolution, non-digital sources to 1080p output. It was cool, and it worked really quite well...until it didn't... read on...

Over the course of the next few years, I upgraded Vista Media Center to Windows 7 Media Center - the improvements were as dramatic as moving from XP MC to Vista MC. 7MC really is currently the best way to record, store, search, and broadcast video from many discrete sources around the house. Put a 7MC server somewhere, load it up with cable cards, place XBox 360s around the house and you've got yourself multizone, HD video. It can be done on the "cheap," with the highest pricetag going to a nice 7MC server with 1-2TB of drive space. I repurposed an old Sony VAIO desktop - this one here, actually - with a better graphic card (an ATI 5600HD) to push a true 1080p monitor, 2TB of RAID0, and a couple of cable card adapters. I put 7MC on it, and never looked back.

It's long about now that I started to notice some ghosts in the machine. I use the video switching on the AV Receiver a lot - I began to notice that when I would move between devices of different screen resolutions, the 7MC would try to hold the resolution of the previous device. (For instance, dropping the screen resolution to 480p and leaving it there.) More annoyingly, when I would bring the entire system out of hibernate, the Pioneer plasma would stay black. It didn't take long for me to realize that the problem was, again, with EDID identification. It took me a little longer to realize that the problem was, again, with another Sony component: the 5200ES A/V Receiver.

The receiver, it turns out, was replacing the EDID from the Pioneer with one of its own. In other words, it wasn't allowing an EDID passthrough, it was identifying itself to the 7MC as a Sony A/V Receiver. This was causing dozens of unwanted side-effects inside the Media Center. The problem didn't materialize in Vista Media Center because of VMC's caching of the EDID. 7MC does not cache the EDID (which is "correct" behavior) - so it was getting a new EDID every time a component switched on, and the identity was coming from the receiver rather than the display.

Because I didn't want to replace the receiver, for about a year my solution to the problem was: anytime the Pioneer never turned on properly, I would get up, walk over to the receiver, unplug it, wait 2 minutes until it reset itself, and plug it back in...

...12 months was enough. Two things snapped in my head:

  • another expensive purchase seemed worth it to counteract a lifetime of unplugging a receiver
  • I was no longer a Sony fanboy
Normally, my first impulse would be to search for another Sony component, but after disappointment after disappointment with Sony gear (both home entertainment and computer), I just couldn't re-invest. So, I began a search into non-Sony waters to find an A/V Receiver that:
  • had the most recent rev of EDID
  • the most recent rev of HDMI
  • handled video switching of a wide variety of components
  • was internet upgradable
  • uprez capabilities
  • excellent sound reproduction/separation
  • excellent video output
  • on screen controls
This lead me to a couple of choices: the Onkyo TX-NR808 and the Denon ACR-3311CI. The price points and feature sets were pretty identical, and the reviews were about neck and neck. I am a fortunate man, in that I now work with both Robert Heron and Patrick Norton, of HD Nation fame. After some quick email back and forths, and bugging them both at their desks, Denon quickly rose to the top. (Both Robert and Patrick both claimed the sounds were a bit warmer with the Denon.)

The unit came quickly, and now the weekend I dreaded: pulling out the old Sony 5200ES and putting the Denon in it's place. It sounds easy, until you consider the rats nest of cables I had to deal with, plus the reprogramming of my Logitech Harmony 900 remote. (As an aside: really a great remote. The RF-to-IR functionality cannot be understated.) The components going into the new receiver? The 7MC, of course, plus a PS3, XBox 360, Roku, and Sonos. This still left me with enough space for expansion - so I can begin to play with some of the other 10' experience boxes out there.

Turning the Sony on for the last time, I wanted to make sure that the 7MC was "inert," and not recording anything important. (I also ran the check on all my other components.) 

After turning it all off, the Sony went into a box and into the ever growing "I need to eBay this crap" pile in the basement. (Home to another Sony receiver, an old Shuttle computer, a TERC HD roof-mount antenna, old car stereo equipment, some pretty great floor-standing Infinity speakers and a dozen laptops of dubious variety. Yeah. eBay. Next weekend.)

Flipping the cabinet around revealed the Thing I Hate Most in the World: stereo wiring. It took a few hours of getting it under control, but once I did I was able to pull out the Sony and slide in the Denon. A little cable management and I now have a new back end to the A/V center.... ok, fine, not that much better....but better. (You can see photos of all the steps on my Flickr stream, if you're up for it. Excuse the dog, she was just curious.)
Bringing the system back up, I ran the setup for the sound field, and then put the system through its paces. The EDID problem was gone. The system operates as it was intended, moving easily from input source to input source, properly switching from unit to unit.

So, is EDID your friend? Now, yes. Device identification is one of the two keys required for all of these systems to interoperate properly - and the display component is probably the trickiest problem to solve. At the beginning of 2011, most new components now handshake correctly using EDID - but if you are wrestling with older components that were once "cutting edge" in this arena, you may run into some of the difficulties I've had plaguing me for a while. (HDMI 1.4a, which supports 3D output, is today's version of "cutting edge," so expect your components to act oddly for the next few years while that standard shakes itself out.)

Best of luck with all of this, and drop me a line to let me know how dark your particular entertainment hell is...