The Producer Electronics Revolution, Part I
What could be more ridiculous than a city that wants to be like
everywhere else? Venice, Paris, New York, Rome and Monte Carlo are all
in Las Vegas, embodied as giant hotels, each as clichéd as a travel
brochure. Nearly all the big theme hotels front The Strip, a wide paved
line in a desert no less arid than the hundred empty basins between the
hundred stony ranges that comprise the rest of Nevada.
But there's good stuff here. The choice of four- and five-star
restaurants rivals Los Angeles and San Francisco, and they're a lot
closer to one another other. Entertainment is second only to gambling as an
attraction, and the new Rat Pack is Québecois. Cirque du Soleil still
works the tent circuit, but its center of gravity has moved from
Montreal to the Strip. In fact, the company's mojo in Vegas is so hot
that not having a Cirque show carries a cost in
status. Caesar's Palace obtains parity by showcasing Céline Dion, the singing prodigy
from Charlemagne, Québec, whose voice I once characterized as "subtle as
a siren, and twice as loud".
Credit where due. All the Cirque shows are beyond good. They are
astonishing. And even though Céline's style sinks my boat, her talent,
crowd appeal and production values are all top-notch.
The drag acts and magic shows are still around--Las Vegas remains a
nature preserve for certain endangered entertainment species--but
they're pushed halfway to the margins, where gaud for its own sake has
been left to die, along with aging hotels.
At the Tropicana, after attending a tired magic act and walking through
an exhibit of relics from The Titanic with my
family, I visited a mens' room where maintenance had been deferred for
a decade or more. I said to this other guy, "Everything in this hotel
screams 'Please implode me!'" The guy replied, "They will. In about two
Also doomed, one cabbie said, are the Riviera, the Frontier, Circus
Circus, the Stardust, the Sahara, the Imperial Palace, the Barbary
Coast...pretty much everything Elvis knew that isn't already gone.
Everything other than the Hilton, where a bad statue of its most famous resident
still stands near a doorway.
Down on Tropicana Boulevard, the unlovable San Remo had its life saved
by a sex change, becoming Hooters' first hotel.
Several days before CES started, our family stayed in the Aladdin, which
was getting ready to morph into Planet Hollywood. On morning walks to a
coffee shop in the Desert Passage, I monitored progress in preparation
for demolition of everything that recalled Arabia. Huge walls were being
erected in the middle of public spaces, as if to hide giant actors,
They say clocks don't matter in Vegas. It's always showtime.
For the last few years, the biggest show in town has been CES, the
Consumer Electronics Show. It fills the whole Convention Center--the
biggest one on Earth--plus the Sands and the Hilton and the Alexis Park. Several
million square feet host more than 2,500 exhibits and 150,000 visitors.
So, one naturally wonders, when will it implode? That was the top topic
on my mind by the time the show was over.
During the calm before the storm, we paid $125/night to stay at the
Aladdin. As soon as CES started, the rates tripled. The travel Web
sites--Orbitz, Travelocity, even Vegas.com--all were useless in the days
leading up to the show. Either nothing was available, or the systems
couldn't keep up with the queries. I was lucky to split a room at
Bally's for $265/night with two other geeks.
My goals at CES was the same as ever:
- catch some interesting
- check out some cool new gear
- see what a few interesting companies are up
- try to find as much Linux as possible under the hoods of gear
being pitched on other virtues
- hang out with geeks who know more than I do
So we'll start with the keynotes.
I blew off Bill Gates' opener, which always is predictably dull and far
from my center of interest in any case. But, I didn't like missing the
opening talks by Gary Shapiro of the Consumer Electronics Association,
and Sir Howard Stringer, the Chairman and CEO of Sony. Still, I was
assured in the press room that transcripts of their talks would go up on
the Web. And they have. (Sort of. See Resources.)
I've heard Gary Shapiro before, and I like a lot of what the CEA does in
Washington. It's serious and often effective lobbying on behalf of
at least a few concerns that CEA shares with the Linux, Open Source and
Free Software communities. For example, here's this from Shapiro's speech
I believe Americans must retain the right to time-shift and
place-shift lawfully acquired content within their private homes.
That includes noncommercial recording of free over-the-air
broadcasts or time-shifting a satellite radio program that you have
paid for. If you agree with me, get active and visit the Home
Recording Rights Coalition booth in the Central lobby.
By some measures the U.S. is falling behind other countries in
broadband deployment, but I am optimistic. I see rapid growth in
competition among broadband providers. If cable, telephone,
wireless, broadcast, satellite and even power line compete to be the
pipeline into the home, then consumers will enjoy falling broadband
pipeline costs and vast choice of competing media services. However,
we must be sure consumers also have unfettered access to content,
services and applications. Openness and access have fueled the
growth of the Internet, and we must reject models which rely on
proprietary systems block access to competitive or disfavored
websites or services. Innovation will flourish only if device
manufacturers who develop "edge technologies" have certainty that
their products and services, like new IP-based video, can connect to
It's just as well that I missed Sir Howard of Sony. Listening to him
talk might have burst the veins in my neck. For example, here's his
weaseling on the rootkit fiasco (see Resources), which Cory Doctorow described as an
example of "jaw-dropping contempt for their customers, for copyright
law, for fair trading and for the public interest":
It has been said that owning content is a handicap for Sony, which
is a company primarily dedicated to electronics. The recent copy
protection issues at Sony BMG have once again brought this to the
forefront. But it is surely too cynical to assume that Sony BMG was
intent on punishing the consumer rather than protecting content and
the rights of the artist. It is appropriate, I believe, for all of
us to worry about content protection, even while recognizing that
some of our efforts to address it may prove problematic.
What this masks is the sad and infuriating victory of Sony's content
head over its electronics heart:
Today, the relationship between content, technology and the consumer
is being turned upside down. Or, more accurately, right side up.
Content is no longer pushed at consumers. Content is pulled by them.
Pulled when they want it. Pulled where they want it. How they want
it. And often even in the precise format in which they want it. The
whole world is essentially plugged in and turned on.
Let's remember that when you use a Sony camcorder, laptop or digital
camera: you're producing, not consuming. Sony's heart may remember that;
but it's head has forgotten.
The next keynote was Paul Otellini of Intel, showing off the company's
new Core Duo CPU, and its Viiv "technology" for doing what dozens of
companies--including Microsoft, with WebTV--have failed at for the
last 10 years: stuffing the Internet genie in the TV bottle. Here's
where Otellini gets into it:
So on top of all these things, the industry has been doing a lot of
work on open standards. Digital Living Network Alliance came
together and has given us the ability to have that protection of
content end to end, across a multitude of vendors' machines.
Creepy enough. Especially since I had to re-type the "content" in that
paragraph and the ones below for this article because Intel turned off
copy-ability on its .pdf of the keynote. So I have to pull it out through my own, ahem,
analog hole. Anyway, it gets worse:
And, of course, interoperability. The thing we as consumers care
most about. Will this stuff work together? As we redefined
interoperability, it's allowed us to speed product development
across the industry.
This is while introducing Viiv, a platform for Windows-based
entertainment PCs, with hooks that allow "content producers" to assert
end-to-end DRM for usage control. Kind of like I'm being "controlled"
right now by that damn .pdf. Otellini continues:
But despite all of this, what consumers really have today is an
internet video experience that's largely experienced from a chair in
front of a computer at a distance of two or three feet.
What I think consumers really want, and what they tell us they want,
is online content on that big screen in their living room, in their
bedroom, from the couch, or sitting on the bed.
And in order for us to deliver this, we have to integrate the big
screen capabilities, the PC capabilities, and the Internet
experience. When we do that, we will staff what consumers have been
asking us to give them.
Translation: Intel wants to get into couch-potato--as well as bed and chair--
farming. Here's how:
Well, today, Intel is introducing a new hardware platform to deliver
that satisfaction. We call it Viiv. It's designed from the ground up
for the digital entertainment experience.
So what is Viiv? It's a combination of hardware and software that
delivers a new media experience.
There's three fundamental new features to this technology.
The first is that we've made the PC much more CE-like...
The second is we've incorporated Dual Core technology into the
And together with Microsoft's Media Center Edition operating system,
the new Viiv hardware and their software delivers a new baseline
capability to handle digital media inside the home.
There's your interoperability. All inside a Microsoft silo.
But there was the third and large missing piece, and that's content.
The most important thing we've been doing in the last couple of
years is working with the content industry to get premium content
available in devices like these.
Ultimately, Viiv is all about enabling a new experience in the home.
Putting the consumer in control.
No, it's about expanding an old experience in the home, replacing PC
productivity with TV passivity. Fertilizer for your inner root vegetable.
Significantly, Otellini mentioned Microsoft only once more in the whole
talk, when showing off some new device.
Earlier, when showing off the speed of the Core Duo processor, Sean
Maloney of Intel conspicuously chose Apple's iTunes as one of the demo
applications. Word among some geeks I spoke to was Intel had long
since fallen out of love with Microsoft and was deeply involved in its
new affair with Apple. So the mistress was upstaging the old wife. Live,
As I expected, Otellini showed up a few days later, guest-starring in
Steve Jobs' keynote at Macworld. He was wearing a clean-room bunny suit and
talking about how great it was to have both companies' engineers
pushing one another to invent cool new stuff. To the relief of many, that
new stuff introduced clearly was Core Duo based, and Viiv was never
Meanwhile, on the Linux Journal Web site, I posted
about both Viiv and LaGrande, another DRMmy Intel
tech initiative that got a lot of press, including some from me after
the last Comdex, in Fall 2003. The most telling response came from Wes
Felter, a smart hacker I've known for a long time who has ample
experience working inside a large Intel OEM. Says Wes:
Until I see evidence to the contrary, I'm going to keep saying that
VIIV 1.0 is nothing but a logo. We could waste a lot of time
speculating about what's in VIIV 1.5 and 2.0, but it's pointless IMO
since nothing is set in stone until it ships.
He adds, "Name one 'Viiv-verified application'; I dare you."
The next keynote was Terry Semel of Yahoo. I missed that one, although I
heard it was good. You can download the video, if you have a Yahoo ID
and password. I forget mine, so I won't bother with it. Too much else to
Next was Larry Page, co-founder of Google. This talk was especially
interesting to me, because Larry would seem to be the least likely public
speaker among top Google brass. He's shy, tends to mumble and never
struck me as a stage hog. (Like, for example, me.)
He was terrific. Unlike the earlier keynotes I saw, Larry's speech wasn't
scripted, and he didn't read it off a screen. Instead, he paced the stage
with a stack of paper in his hand, occasionally telling the techie running
the slides to go forward or back, and was charmingly low key and
He also gently busted the Consumer Electronics industry for practices
that have been infuriating civilians as well as geeks for generations:
Right now, if you look at consumer electronic devices--let's say I
have a camera. They all have USB. I have a USB pocket hard drive,
but I can't actually connect to that and have it store the pictures.
Why not? The hardware could actually work with a little bit of
modification, but the software has not been developed to do this.
Now maybe two guys sitting here say, "Oh, I'll give you my photos if
you give me yours." But they can't do that either--they're going to
have to find a computer. So it's kind a hassle to have a computer in
an auditorium like this.
Now if there are device manufacturer people here, I don't want you
to say, "Oh, that's a great idea. I'll go implement it," because you
won't think of all the things that you should do. That's the whole
point about the Internet. People think of new things to do all the
time, and you can't possibly think of all of them. So every
manufacturer would have to implement every cool piece of software,
and there's no point in that. You might as well have it done once.
Instead, make devices flexible by supporting reasonable open
standards for how they work. Imagine if you introduced a new Wi-Fi
camera in 2007 and some very smart kid in Lithuania creates software
so that you can actually share photos, and so all the nearby
devices--telephones and different cameras around--can get the group photo
so everybody doesn't have to take the photo multiple times, like all
of you guys are doing. That would really save a lot of effort and
would be really cool--but not every device manufacturer should have
to think of that. We should really enable software people to do what
they know how to do.
[Furthermore], you should be able to plug in devices anywhere and
have them work. There's a lot of talk at this conference about
having TVs connected to the Internet and connected to computers. Why
can't you plug your TV into any convenient outlet--Ethernet, Wi-Fi,
USB, whatever is handy--and have images displayed on there? Why
does it matter if it's in your living room or wherever? In fact,
what if you want your USB webcam to monitor your front door--shouldn't you just be able to plug it into a USB through an adapter
into Ethernet, or into Wi-Fi, or whatever you happen to have in your
house? It shouldn't be a big deal. It shouldn't require any software.
I'll give you just a few more examples. Why can't your Bluetooth
cell phone start your car, given that your car already has a
Bluetooth speakerphone built in? Why can't you use that to unlock
your car instead of carrying your keys? There are a million things
[like this, and] we're not going to think of all of them, but if we
have good communication between these things, they'll really start
to work well. The hardware we have is amazing. It can do tons and
tons of stuff. Your Bluetooth car is probably near a cell phone most
of the time. Why doesn't it download latest repair information
automatically? It would be easy to do.
One wire should do everything possible. If you plug a wire into
something, you should be able to do anything you could possibly do
with that device--run software on it, charge it, power other
devices from its battery, or whatever, just with that single wire.
We could basically do that with the hardware we have. And it should
work the same whether you plug that wire into your house, your
neighbor's house, or all the way around the world.
All the devices at CES, as I mentioned, have keypads and screens and
things like that, if you look around. Now why is there no standard
for those little screens and keypads? I'd like to have the ability
to buy a little touch screen. It'd probably cost about $50 and I
might plug it into my computer or Ethernet and here I've just
decided I want to use it as an alarm clock. Let's say I plug it into
my wall and since it has Bluetooth, and it's talking to my computer
and shows what time I need to wake up based on the meetings I have.
Maybe it can also show you your music and let you control your
stereo. But whatever the software people figure out what to do, that
display should do it. It doesn't need to necessarily have a speaker
built in, because maybe my computer wakes me up instead of the alarm
clock. I'm amazed that we don't have devices like this--and the
reason we don't is because we lack standards to do it.
Another example [slide of a pile of adapters and cords]: these are
the power adapters just lying around our office. I'm sure most of
you have things like this under your desk too. It's a real hazard.
You could electrocute yourself--if one in a million adapters
catches fire and you have a thousand adapters, it starts to be an
issue. And it's also a big hassle for the manufacturers because
every one of those devices now has this thing that's in the box
that's specific to a country. And so they have to repackage the
boxes and maintain stock for different countries. It's just silly,
and also really inefficient, because guess what? They are sort of
subsidized by the devices you buy, so people try to provide the
cheapest ones possible. So they all suck power.
Why not instead standardize the power and have a basic [adapter
device] so you can say, "I want 12 volts, 2 amps, give it to me."
Then you can buy a really nice power supply that's really efficient,
really small, is appropriate to the country you're in, and the
consumer can pay for it instead of the device manufacturer so
they'll have higher margins. Then we don't have that mess of cords.
either. So I think we really, really do need standards in these areas.
So basically, most devices should be connected through adapters--and
you can adapt anything to USB for like $20. (If you want to do
video it's a little bit more expensive.) We have adapters for
everything else already. Do you really need all these ports running
around? I don't think it's necessary.
Let me show you a positive example: phones. You can plug any
Bluetooth headset into any Bluetooth phone and it will work great.
Here [shows slide] are some examples we found lying around the
office. Charging is still an issue for these things, so you still
need standard power.
So in summary, we really want to get all this stuff to work
together. This is just of a personal passion of mine. What we really
need are adapters like I mentioned. And also it's very important
that we have standards for security, discovery, peering, and
forwarding to the Internet. And we don't really have those things
yet. We also need the standards, and there are some already that can
be adapted for protocols. Now finally, as I mentioned, you can take
USB and really do most of the things you need to do with it .
I'm going to just plead with all of you, let's get the power supply
problems fixed, or let's get all these devices talking together. I
think we'll get just amazing innovation, things we just totally
can't predict happening, and also all of you as consumers will be a
lot happier. Your devices will really just work, you'll be able to
plug anything together that makes sense: if you need storage, or you
need a bigger display on something, you just plug it in a display,
or whatever you want to do. This is a really important thing to get
done. We'd love to have help in doing this, or I'd love ideas from
people. I thought I'd throw this out as something interesting to get
people thinking about.
Think anybody from the CE industry was listening? I doubt it, which is
why I went ahead and quoted that whole long passage (which was in HTML,
by the way--all the other keynote "transcripts" were .pdfs, or worse).
It's the most important message or collection of messages I heard at
CES. That it was delivered by a "consumer" who happens to be the
billionaire co-founder of the most indispensable commercial service on
the Net means less than the points that he made.
And that too is a point.
Larry Page's speech, and this soliloquy in particular, marked for me a
historical turning point for Consumer Electronics. It's when production
started to outweigh consumption as the most important activity for
customers of electronic goods.
Sitting in that room, at that moment in time, I could feel the shifting
tide. I saw even more clearly why the Internet genie would never get
stuffed in the TV bottle. And that the TV bottle was even more broken
than it already appeared.
I'll go deeper into this tide shift in my next report--or reports, I'm
not sure yet how many there will be--when I cover the other four topics
of the five I listed up top.
Meanwhile, here's a teaser.
Right now this tide shift isn't a smooth thing. In fact, it's a fight.
That fight is between independence and dependence; between liberty and
slavery; between free markets and your-choice-of-silo; between what you
want to do and what Apple or Microsoft or Intel or Real or Google
will let you do.
It's a fight between those who value music, artwork, video and writing,
and those who wish to reduce all those goods to the container cargo
they call "content".
It's a fight that has the The Net and its founding values on one side. On
the other side is an unholy alliance between the "content"
industries, Consumer Electronics and the carriers who still think the
Internet is about delivering industrial goods in packeted forms to our
TVs, desktops and MP3 players.
It's a fight between two overlapping circles in a Venn diagram. The
larger circle is The Net: an open noncommercial environment that
supports countless commercial markets, including the one for Consumer
Electronics goods. The smaller circle is the unholy alliance that thinks
its circle is bigger.
The Net will win, because its circle is actually the world on which the
smaller circle resides--whether or not the smaller circle likes that
Our job, among many others, is to break up and otherwise thwart that
unholy alliance. In the three weeks that have passed since CES, I've
come up with some new ideas about how to do that. I'll share those too, next time
Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal, for
which he writes the Linux for Suits column. He also presides over Doc Searls' IT
Garage, which is published by SSC, the publisher of Linux