The Future Of Consumer Electronics Platforms

With the economic downturn, the "great convergence" turned into a rude awakening. What's next for consumer electronics?

With the economic downturn, Our "Great Convergence" turned into a Rude awakening. Now a more intelligent debate has evolved around consumer media devices. The Battle lines have been drawn and history is in the making.

During the heyday of the Internet craze much discussion within the embedded systems community focused on the "Great Convergence"—embedded systems devices were all going to be connected by the Internet and become information appliances. People were predicting the coming "post-PC" era, when PCs would become obsolete as they were replaced by devices dedicated to specific functionality.

Then came the nuclear winter. As the easy venture capital evaporated, so did the talk of Internet appliances taking over the world. The myriad startups, such as those working on Internet-enabled toasters, mostly dried up along with the money. Much of the breathless discussion about Internet appliances and convergence has fallen out of the popular press over the last few years.

As it turns out, this was a good thing. Most of the really stupid ideas disappeared along with the money, and in the meantime some really good ideas have had a chance to mature. Most notably, the world has noticed that there are real advantages to digital media. Consumers drove the conversion of music to digital forms mostly through piracy, which forced the recording industry to start changing how they did business. Meanwhile, digital photography is forcing reinvention of the camera business and the practical destruction of the consumer film business.

Even the consummate consumer experience is falling victim to digitization. The beginnings of a remake of the television industry are inherent in the digital recorder revolution. The promised 500 channels of content are being converted instead into a single channel—the stuff you want to watch, when you want to watch it.

Each of these transitions was a violent, traumatic wrenching of control in an established industry. Right now that transition is playing out in the film industry, the last of the old-media industries to maintain some semblance of control over their content. The only real barrier in this case is that of bandwidth, because of the sheer size of a digitized movie. But make no mistake, that barrier will not hold for long.

This scenario is being played out in any number of industries right now. Voice-over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is reinventing phone service. Digital data is appearing on the dashboards of automobiles and private planes. While each of these advances is interesting, the real story is that this digitization of data allows a real, meaningful convergence that will rewrite all the rules.

The platforms
Much of the attention regarding convergence and connected devices has revolved around the platform. The Microsoft-Intel universe has been working hard to make the PC the center of the converged universe by collapsing consumer devices into applications running on home computers that must expand to contain them. In fact, handling digital media files is one of the very last semi-valid excuses there is for upgrading a home PC.

Meanwhile, many people are striving to create alternatives to this PC-centric universe based on either standards-based approaches or proprietary technologies. In many ways these alternatives follow the traditional approach of the box that consumers buy for a specific function rather than as a general-purpose computing device. The real question is whether this approach is optimal in a digital converged world.

PC as consumer platform
The problem with the consumer PC scenario is the usage model of the PC. Most people have a firm line in their minds between computers and consumer electronics. They don't understand that computers are hidden inside an increasing number of the boxes stacked up on top of their TVs. As long as they draw that distinction, it will be difficult for them to buy into the concept that many of those boxes could be absorbed into a general-purpose PC that resides in the living room.

An evolutionary branch of PC designers is attempting to redefine this image. Microsoft is trying to lead this charge with its Media Center Edition, but the real momentum is more at the grass-roots level with a group of technologies loosely collected under the term Home Theater PC (HTPC). Small manufacturers like Shuttle have started building system boxes and specialized PC motherboards that look a lot more like consumer electronics boxes than they do computers. Intel has recognized and is attempting to get out in front of this trend with some of the smaller official motherboard form factors under their new Balanced Technology Extended (BTX) standard.

At this point it appears that the PC will morph into a platform that appeals to the home systems integrator, the same hobbyist that drove the creation of the PC in the first place. The powers-that-be will frown on this group since many of their innovations will hover at the fringes of legality, but quite frankly those innovations will probably migrate over and add new life to the true consumer-level devices.

Proprietary platforms
Meanwhile, the value of those consumer electronics boxes is increasingly being driven by the software inside them. As media transforms into digital form the handling of that media becomes more dependent on storage and software than on analog electronics.

This change has caused some interesting transformations in a number of formerly familiar boxes. Several audio/video receivers have grown Ethernet ports to accept digital audio, and an amazing number of DVR devices now have hard drives, recordable DVD drives, or both. All of these innovations build compatibility bridges to the world of "real" computers without taking on the stigma of being PCs themselves.

Even these platforms may be influenced by Intel and Microsoft, but in a different form. The XScale processor and the Windows CE operating system can provide a reasonable platform in this area, but these architecture decisions remain much less clear. The XScale processor is perfectly capable of running a number of alternative operating systems, and the Windows CE operating system is capable of running on a number of different processors.

As it stands right now, the XScale processor is well on its way to achieving dominance in these true consumer devices. Other variants of the ARM architecture are finding niches as well, but the combination of the ARM processor and Intel's manufacturing and marketing muscle in the XScale has made it easily the first choice.

The software side of this architecture is still up for grabs. Recent surveys have shown familiar choices like VxWorks to be fading in the stretch while Windows CE is coming on strong, but both of these choices may yet be overshadowed by the huge amount of interest that exists in Linux. At this point it's extremely difficult to predict a winner in this race, or even if there will be a clear winner at all.

The media is the message
So what will be the dominant consumer electronics platform? The amazingly simple answer is the media. Microsoft is very aware of this, which is why the company is pushing its Windows Media technologies so hard. If Windows is the media format, it's a pretty good bet there will be a Windows operating system on either a PC or a consumer electronics platform somewhere in there—if not both.

In this scenario the world does become simpler, as tends to happen in single-vendor situations. Applications software can now be built on a familiar, reasonably stable, and mature platform. If you trust Microsoft to hold the keys to that platform, then consumers may reap the benefit.

The alternative to the dominant single vendor is an approach that builds on open standards. If the media exists primarily in formats like the MPEG video or MP3 audio standards, these standards truly become the platform, and selecting hardware and operating systems remain an open question. As a matter of fact, it's relatively simple for a sophisticated user to put together a system today out of standard components that rivals the best-integrated systems currently available.

I know that this standards-based system is possible because I've built it myself at home. I have selected Windows XP Pro for my servers, but this could just as easily have been Linux. Either OS selection runs nicely on the generic PC hardware that I tend to use. As I said earlier, I believe that PC hardware will be the standard for the home hobbyist like me.

That hardware, by the way, is far from state-of-the-art. I'm not particularly interested in paying premium prices for a 3.2GHz box when a 2.4GHz one will easily do the job and cost a third as much. The heavy lifting of video encoding and decoding is primarily offloaded to video card hardware, where I also tend to stay back a generation or two. I have no interest in video gaming, but I'm grateful to those who do for funding the R&D for companies like ATI and NVidia to enable them to push video performance to even greater heights. I'll gladly ride on the coattails of that curve for my relatively simple video needs.

This type of reasoning is critical in the definition of the platforms for the next generation of consumer devices. Early adopters will pay relatively outrageous prices for new technology, but the mass market will be reluctant to embrace anything with end-user prices above one of the magic price points. Whatever platform prevails must be able to ruthlessly drive costs down to the point where it becomes an impulse item for the masses.

The key thing to notice about this standards-based system is just that—it's a system for handling digital media rather than a series of point solutions for radio, television, or other media channels. In the past the cable system would feed directly into the TV set, the phone line would connect to the telephones, and the radio receiver would feed off a separate antenna. Stored media such as CDs, DVDs, video tapes, and so forth, would require not only racks of media but also dedicated players for each form of physical storage.

In the integrated digital world these racks of media storage devices become corpses that have long since been left behind by the spirits of the media they once held. Those spirits now reside on mammoth hard drives where they are free to be piped to whatever devices can use them.

The communications
Another key battleground in this reinvention of consumer electronics is the pipe that feeds media to the device. The history is one of severe fragmentation, with separate wires for telephone, television, and data. Here as well we're experiencing a convergence driven by digitization since all forms of communication are moving to digital and digital data doesn't care what the wire looks like.

If that bundle of wires leading into our homes reduces to a single cable, then what does that cable look like? In some ways the current battle between the cable companies and the telcos is reminiscent of the last great networking architecture war, the one between Ethernet and Token Ring. There the issue was whether a planned deterministic approach (Token Ring) was superior over an architecture that allowed relatively chaotic expansion by simply adding another node and letting the network sort itself out.

In this analogy the telcos are definitely in the role of Token Ring. Digital subscriber line (DSL) requires a point-to-point connection between the home and the Central Office, and that connection has definite distance limitations. This system is a natural outgrowth of the way telco networks grew out of voice lines.

Cable, on the other hand, was created as a broadcast medium. As a result their networks were branching trees with many intermediate nodes between the leaf nodes and the central point. This configuration was a huge disadvantage when they first converted to bidirectional data, since they had to upgrade the entire distributed system before the first data bit could swim upstream from the home, but once this was done cable companies now have a network that maps quite nicely into a distributed data network architecture.

Within the home the battle for wiring architecture is over and Ethernet has won. Attempts to create power line networks and networks based on existing phone wiring have pretty much disappeared. More and more consumer devices have Ethernet RJ-45 connectors to their back panels.

The interesting thing is that these connectors are beginning to subsume another popular consumer technology. Infrared (IR) remote controls have become truly ubiquitous in consumer devices, but they've got some glaring problems from the consumer point of view. For starters, there's pretty much a one-to-one correspondence between the remote control and the device being controlled. This is like having a different telephone for each person you want to call. The industry recognizes the problem but to date has done nothing to solve it.

The other major problem with IR remotes is that they're unidirectional. The remote control has no idea if the commands it sends are having the desired (or for that matter any) effect on the box. This open-loop control creates a number of problems that we've learned to live with, but that doesn't mean we like it.

Both of these problems are being addressed by a move towards Internet protocol-based remote controls. After all, control signals are also digital data, so why should they have their own separate pathway? If that RJ-45 port is there why not send control signals through it as well? This movement is just getting started, but I believe it will quickly gain momentum and finally realize the promise of supposedly "universal" remote controls.

But what about that nasty fact that most homes don't have the twisted-pair wiring that Ethernet demands? These days the answer is to simply bypass wiring altogether and set up an 802.11 network. In fact, if Ethernet does end up being displaced eventually it's quite likely that it will end up being rendered completely moot by ubiquitous wireless networks.

This also could happen to that one fat pipe leading into the home. The 802.16 standard could quite possibly become the default "wiring" method for the infamous Last Mile. Just as wireless communications within the home avoids tearing into walls an 802.16-based metropolitan network avoids tearing up the streets. This is not a one-time cost advantage either, since future upgrades for wireless systems simply involve upgrading the endpoints.

The real win here for the consumer is that it no longer matters what the pipes look like. They simply become an undifferentiated way to move bits from one place to another.

Enforcing the rules
It sounds like we're moving towards a consumer paradise where any media is available anywhere at any time. That vision, however, is too good to be true. The uncontrolled digitization of data puts all of the power in the hands of the consumer, which means in the long run the economic incentive to create media probably goes away.

The first significant reply to this shift of power was the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). This piece of legislation says that it's illegal not only to copy stuff that's encrypted, but it's also illegal to try to figure out the encryption. It was essentially an admission that the content producers were so far behind the curve on digital media that they needed a legally dictated unfair advantage to allow them to catch up. This assessment was validated when the first attempts by the recording industry to encrypt CDs were absolutely destroyed in an open test. The odd part was that the testers were not legally allowed to actually complete busting the code, since that would have been illegal under the DMCA!

It appears that this need for an unfair advantage may be coming to an end. Digital Rights Management (DRM) systems are ready for distribution from a number of vendors. It's a safe bet that consumer electronics devices created to handle digital media will be required to interface to DRM systems in the near future, even though doing so will quite literally add no immediate value as far as the consumer is concerned. In fact, the complexity of dealing with the DRM could quite likely put a chill on the popularity of these devices for the true consumer, that nonhobbyist who just wants to sit down in the evening and watch TV.

Evolution begins at home
We're quite literally entering a Brave New World of consumer electronics. Internally, these devices will resemble computers that must deal with networking, multiple content format, and DRM, while externally they must be capable of operating simply and intuitively for the user. This chasm can only be bridged by effective software embedded into the system. Ultimately, we're the ones that will create that system, whether we do it as applications running on a PC platform or as separate boxes with the inner computer hidden from view. This is the challenge that we all face in creating the next generation of consumer electronics.

Larry Mittag is a contributing editor for Embedded Systems Programming magazine and a member of the advisory board for the Embedded Systems conference. He is also the director of engineering for A7 Engineering, a contract engineering firm that provides products primarily based on Windows CE. Larry can be reached at [email protected].

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