Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Open Vs 'Just Works' - convergence part 1

So I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I'm researching some new entertainment hardware. At some point this might lead to actually buying some, but in the meantime it is a bit of light entertainment for geeks. But since I've written a lot here over the last year about how technology can (or at some point over the next few years, will) disrupt how we consume entertaining content, it is also relevant to post. Not least because it cuts to the heart of the open vs closed internet/technology systems battle.As there's a fair chance that no-one will be remotely interested in what my living room looks like, I'm going to post this in two parts. The first one is all about me, so you will probably want to skip on to the second one, which is more about the internet....

Ok, so the 'converged hardware' stuff first. There's a joke about a suburban couple who are going to see their friends in the countryside, and somewhere down the winding country roads get horribly lost (geek caveat - obviously a pre satnav joke). Eventually they see a farmer walking up to the side of the road, and pull up to ask him how to get to their friend's house. He looks at them, looks across the field, and has a think. Eventually he says "Well I'm not too sure. But I know I wouldn't start from here"

I've been thinking about that a lot when looking at hardware, as like anyone else who has a computer, a mobile and a TV, I am starting from here. And here is different for everyone. I have a Sky+ box with lots of movies and sports on it, and I have a MacBook that syncs to my mobile, camera and video camera. I also have a remote hard drive that stores all the music, photos etc so they don't take up extra storage on my wife's computer. All the Sky subscriptions work on any computer or our mobiles. I pull YouTube, iPlayer, 4OD, etc into a Boxee interface on my computer, more because I can than because it is particularly easier. I could use my phone as a remote control, but that also seems a little bit pointless if it is only controlling a laptop.

What I'd like to be able to do is:

1. put all this stuff onto a TV screen (ok the Sky stuff is already there, but....)
2. I can only record Sky movies onto the Sky+ box

I could rip movies in real time on my laptop from SkyPlayer, but what's the point when I could buy it on DVD, cos it's easier.

So some of this is possible. XBox is leading the way in putting TV content back on the TV screen (some 9% of iPlayer streams were delivered through XBox OS in December 09). Boxee (based on Xbox Media Center software) would just need a couple of connecters to plug my laptop into the TV, or alternatively I could wait until the Boxee set top box that D-Link are producing is released in the UK, at come point in the next few months. Or until the end of the year when Project Canvas set top boxes apparently deliver on their promise of being Freeview for internet TV. Or I could track down a second hand Mac Mini, which does a computer's job while looking like a set top box. However, as I'm starting from where I am at the moment, I wouldn't dream of using Apple TV, which is based on the iTunes premise of micropayment for content. I've bought into the 'all you can eat' Sky+ version.

And none of this will help me to link up with, and record movies to view later though, Sky. Sky+ was revolutionary because it just works - anyone can use it (rather than any other hardware or software DVRs that I have seen, which take a spare few hours and a degree in hardware geekery - so ok for me, but no fun for the rest of the family). In order to just work, it is a closed proprietary system that doesn't play nice with pretty much anything else. That doesn't mean that the content that goes into it is closed: you can fit satellite cards into computers. So that leads me onto the question of whether it is worth buying a new computer to run a software DVR alongside the Sky+. Now I've already mentioned a Mac Mini, and if it was that simple then I'd go and get one, but unfortunately Apple is also a pretty closed system for which Sky satellite cards are not available. So I'd be looking at a Windows 7 machine.

This could well be a blessing, as Windows 7 Media Center is rumoured to be extremely good at syncing with multiple TV cards (which I'd need, so that I could stream Sky content and record to disc whilst watching other stuff). That starts to look quite expensive though, when you add in all the add-ons that a Windows machine would need to sync, store, network and deliver content. Because if i was going all out and buying a new pc, then it would need to be able to do music over the network as well......

So there doesn't seem to be an easy way forward. There are just a lot of different ways, all of which will work to a degree, with a lot of effort, and probably less than seamlessly. And you can probably tell by my current reliance on Apple and Sky products, lack of effort and seamless are all important. That's the beauty of closed systems - someone else does the difficult bit for you so that everything just works. The flip side is that customising, improving, making things work together becomes more difficult if they aren't designed as part of the same ecosystem.


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