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Convergence Headaches Scare Away AV Installers Print E-mail
Thursday, 27 March 2008
ImageI have personally been blessed enough to see, feel, touch and test some of the coolest PC convergence products in the world over the past few years. Cutting-edge convergence gear has been sent to my home to test, review and use. Other systems I have seen have actually been installed in entire mock-homes that feature every possible trick, gadget or controller known to man – all working perfectly – yet custom installers for the most part aren’t impressed to the point where they are widely installing home theater PCs into their clients’ homes. Many companies at the leading edge of AV/PC convergence are left wondering what the problem is, as it is widely accepted that AV/PC convergence is the industry’s future.
The whole-home system I speak of above is one designed and installed by manufacturer Life-Ware. I can say that, while I am generally good at breaking any and every AV product I lay my hands on, their systems in my opinion have been on multiple occasions rock-solid. They boldly dared me to “break” their system and I failed. They dared me to make the system do back-flips and it did them without a hiccup. For each challenging move I made, their system had an answer. Every automated drape worked perfectly. I could cue up weather in Beverly Hills on an HD touch panel and then flip over to an HD source and then to music and then to photos. The system could keep up with my every move. You ask, “Jerry, you buy every new toy that comes down the line – why not this one?” Despite my deep interest, my reasons were twofold. First, I am scared of Microsoft Vista as a lifelong Apple user and second, media center PCs have not yet been able to receive and/or record signal from DirecTV (or Dish Network, for that matter) and I want the most HD channels available, plus the most NFL games in high definition. I have therefore held back from the investment, despite how impressive their media server is and how robust their platform has proven to be in my tests. I am likely to test it more in the future as their system gets better and better, but for now, I am sticking with my current home automation system.

More important than why I haven’t gotten into home theater PCs and media center products is the question of why dealers and installers are scared to take the leap. On many levels, change isn’t something AV dealers and installers deal with well. Vista has gotten a bad reputation in the PC community (compared to XP, Unix and other platforms) and the idea of running an entire home on it is often too much risk for dealers whose time is thin and whose profit margins rely on reliability. The world of Crestron offers close-ended models that customers can’t really mess up. While right or wrong, if you broach the idea of getting away from the incredibly profitable world of Crestron programming (not to mention the sale of the Crestron-type hardware), you are going to get some resistance from dealers, many of whom are bitterly loyal. Why worry about the family teenager downloading a video or some kind of file with a virus that paralyzes the PCs that run the house’s HVAC and automation system, when you can have a closed-ended system that is believed to be immune to viruses?

The monetary argument with dealers and integrators is a strong one and the reliability argument only adds fuel to the fire, but one of the strongest issues with convergence of all kinds is actually integrating content with the physical technology. Just last night, I was using the online interface via an IP address to work on my ReQuest Audio F Series server. I was adding songs, creating new playlists and editing some of my more popular playlists to make them even better. But as I sat there with over 100,000 songs on my Firewire “music” hard drive as a network device, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out a way to get the songs from my Mac to my ReQuest. It was just one hard drive to another hard drive-based device, but I had no luck. Moreover, much of the meta data that comes from ripping compact discs to my music server is simply incorrect or inconsistent. For example: Jimi Hendrix is spelled a number of different ways (Jimi with a Y, Jimi with two Ms, The Jimi Hendrix Experience), all putting data in places that makes it nearly impossible to listen to music in meaningful ways as we all once did with CDs and even vinyl. How exactly to edit this is unclear. As of the time of publication, I have yet to get a return call from ReQuest customer service, so when I go home tonight the band Yes will have half of their albums under YES (with all caps) and others under Yes (only Y being capped). A simple glitch with a three-letter band name can disorganize your entire music catalogue and, unlike iTunes, which lets you fix the solution pretty easily, my server has made it pretty hard. With iTunes, uploading music from a hard drive like mine is a simple as drag and drop. With my $4,000 music server, it’s not even clear if I can get the music from one device to another using my native Mac platform.

The biggest success stories of convergence speak more to convenience than to actual technological or content convergence. Apple has sold more than 120,000,000 iPods mainly because of the ease of use, low price point and sex appeal of their product, combined with the ease of use of the iTunes music and movie store. It’s just easy to buy music, television and movies from Apple and it’s easy to get that content from one computer to your iPhone to your laptop and around your network. No media center PC is quite that easy to use so far, yet Apple foolishly leaves off RS232 control, which would allow users in an integrated home theater system to run an affordable iMac Mini as a media center PC. Not all high-end users are going to want to watch or control their movies from a laptop, unless they are on a long plane flight. Apple clearly has the best GUI, but struggles to understand that there is an entire world outside of your Mac Book Air.

Other success stories from the world of PC convergence come from the likes of Music and Video Giants. This Nevada-based company is making a name for itself, because they sell entire genres of CD or higher-quality music and soon will have HD quality movies that dealers can load onto servers of various types with relative ease. Dealers listen when customers are willing to spend $20,000 for a batch of music, and they can make a healthy profit on the sale. Dealers listen when consumers tell them that they want every movie they own and have ever dreamed of owning no farther than one touch away via their touch-screens. Music Giants offers just that and people are starting to line up to make five- and six-figure investments in their media for their media centers and server-type products.

Kaleidescape, while still a standard-definition video and music server at this point, offers some of the best-looking graphic user interfaces on a closed-ended system that organizes music and movies in meaningful ways that have gotten favorable responses from dealers. With their legal issues with the movie studios behind them, dealers are lining up to sell these $30,000 servers to their wealthiest clients, because these servers make accessing music and movies very easy and even more fun. Once again, convenience rules over quality, which seems to be the law of convergence this early in the going.

AV/PC convergence is not as linear or as easy to understand as the HD disc format war, which got settled in fairly quickly, in about 18 months. Convergence is more of a slow-moving phenomenon that has to show dealers/installers how they can make money selling converged products and services, while at the same time sell consumers on the idea of why content management of high-definition media will be easy to use. If the players pushing early AV/PC convergence accomplish this feat, the early adopters will keep coming onboard as long as the HD content is there to play with and as long as this small group of consumers finds more and more value in what can be done when music, movies, television, home automation and beyond merge with computers. As the rock gains speed rolling downhill, mainstream consumers will jump on in significant volumes. Cable boxes, satellite receivers, wireless devices and many more products will all start speaking the same language and consumers will easily be able to make them get along in the same system with ease. When that happens, expect convergence to really hit its stride.

- Lifeware.com
- ReQuest.com
- Apple.com
- Kalidescape.com
- MusicGiants.com

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