So give me my digital hub already

I've been pining for a computer-based home media network and router for years. If we can build data networks with clients and servers, why not something similar for home entertainment?

COMMENTARY--I've been pining for a computer-based home media network and router for years. If we can build data networks with clients and servers, why not something similar for home entertainment?

Technologically, I think we already have the infrastructure in place to build entertainment systems based around one or more media routers, or, for those who prefer Jobsian neologism, digital hubs.

Ports alone are not enough
Adding a whole bunch of ports to a computer in order to make it connectable to various media sources is all well and good, but the software side of things is at least as crucial. That said, it's not just a matter of offering prefab packages and limiting the features to those that get built in.

If we wanted that sort of thing, we wouldn't be interested in digital hubs, since we're already stuck with the permanently finite feature sets of today's consumer electronics. After all, when was the last time anyone got a feature upgrade to their existing media gadgets? (Bug-fix firmware upgrades, e.g. for DVD players, don't count.)

What I want is for the technology developers to provide me with building blocks as well as standard, default interfaces. I further want the media providers to offer me both media and metadata (e.g. schedule and programming information) in standard formats that I can process any way that suits me. I, being a nerd, care about being able to put the building blocks and the media together in ways that are useful to me, not the average, programming-illiterate couch spud.

Sony, whose success in the consumer electronics arena is irrefutable, now includes PVR software with its latest Vaio desktop PCs. I haven't had a chance to use one of these systems yet, but merely by including PVR capabilities, Sony has raised the bar in the market.

I recently wrote about scripting languages, and digital hubs would be a perfect use for them. The technology providers need to create engines that can acquire and process media and metadata from sources as diverse as cable, terrestrial broadcast, satellite, and the Internet. With the help of high-level language bindings to those engines, I could put together my own customized system that records the media that I want for time shifted viewing (or listening) and/or archiving.

I could create my own non-stupid agents that include carefully crafted criteria for sifting through media metadata much more usefully to me than a built-in brute-force text search ever could. I'd be more than happy, e.g., to write a Perl script--regexes and all--to ferret out the programs I want to watch. I could also create a smarter storage manager that understands which programs I consider more expendable than others when disk space gets tight.

Most importantly, though, I could evolve the system as I come up with optimizations and feature additions, and I could even share my solutions with others, without giving the engine software away.

While those hypothetical couch spuds are unlikely to want to program anything, including their VCRs, there are plenty of us that do. And we're generally willing to pay a little extra at first for the privilege. Still don't believe me? Then look at the TiVo phenomenon.

Listening to TiVo
I've only come across a few life-changing technologies. The Worldwide Web is one, 802.11b is another, and it seems that for those who own one--and I do not (yet) belong to this group--TiVo is such a technology as well.

While TiVo owners may be Philips or Sony customers by virtue of their hardware purchases, all the TiVo users I know associate themselves with the software and functionality rather than the box it comes in. Not only do TiVo users as a whole care passionately about using the system to improve the television viewing experience, but they are continually pushing to improve it themselves.

Witness the development of an Ethernet card for TiVo boxes, despite the lack of access to the TiVo metadata via the Internet, as well as the recent-yet-brief availability of a tool to retrieve the MPEG2 data from the internal TiVo hard disk.

While the latter item no doubt has the MPAA and its ilk frothing, I hope that some sane-yet-profit-seeking individuals within those organizations realize that it would be a more efficient use of their resources to figure out how to build workable business models out of these new technologies than fighting them. After all, their very own customers have voted loudly and clearly with their wallets, and the opportunities for as yet undelivered revenue streams are many. But as long as unenlightened license holders and their lobbyists keep their heads buried in their lawyers'--rather than their business developers'--briefing materials, untold millions of dollars will be wasted.

And there's even a Linux angle, too
As those who've been paying attention well know, TiVo's software is built on top of Linux running on a PowerPC processor. From some of the discussions I've skimmed on the AVS TiVo forum, TiVo is also using TCL for some--if not all--of its high-level scripting needs.

But others are beginning to use Linux for TV-related devices as well. Earlier this week, a group of 25 companies announced the formation of the TV Linux Alliance. While TiVo is a founding member, as are most of the usual suspects, I was quite surprised not to see Nokia in this group.

The reason for my surprise is Nokia's Media Terminal, which suggests some serious cluefulness within the upper reaches of Nokia's org chart, especially since the company appears to be actively encouraging external developers. As part of its efforts to attract developers, Nokia has even launched the Open Standards Terminal site.

I had a chance to see the Media Terminal at CES earlier this year and, despite its soporific name, thought it was pretty cool then. Now that I know more about it, it seems even cooler than I thought it was, in large part because of its apparent malleability.

Now that the bar's been raised...
Just as Sony upped the ante by bundling PVR software with its latest desktop PCs, Nokia has also raised the bar by opening up its non-PC media access device. Now that these precedents have been set, all the basic ingredients for useful digital hubs are in place.

Smart companies have a great opportunity to profit from the realization that a far-from-saturated market exists, populated with people for whom the cookie-cutter solutions offered by conventional consumer electronics firms remain insufficient, and who are willing to spend money on more customizable solutions.

Nerds of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but today's common denominator consumer electronics products! TalkBack below and show the industry that we're not some piddly little niche market.

ZDNet columnist Stephan Somogyi wrote this entire column on a new iBook using only a single battery charge, with three out of eight little gray bars of electrons to spare.


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