Commentary

My Horribly Dis-Integrated Living Room

A recent study reported that consumers like streaming TV more than cable TV. Way more. Duh. However, there is a cost to all this wonderful stuff.

Making all the tech play together can be excruciating. It shouldn’t be.

To set the stage, my living room contains an array of pretty common devices. The Sony TV talks to Roku, and the Roku speaks to my home network, which gets its internet connection from a company known as Spectrum, which used to be Time Warner, but which sends me messages under the name Charter. My audio goes PCM/optical out of the TV into an integrated amp. There is a cable box in there somewhere. There are at least four remotes in play — and, per Shelly Palmer’s excellent summary of streaming TV, subscriptions to about five streaming services.

Miraculously, it all works together, but barely. I’m the family CTO, and I want to fire myself.  A small example of my frustration follows.

About once a month, my TV stops being trusted by HBO, and requires me to tell Spectrum, (or whoever they are) via PC, a password — so that Spectrum can send me a number to input into my TV, using my remote, to confirm I am not stealing HBO today on the same TV I used yesterday. Something must have happened — like maybe my home IP address was reset by my cable company? They don’t tell you why, except in vague bureaucratic terms like “please authorize.”

The Sandbox

Devices are becoming idiot savants.  They get simultaneously smarter in the domain they control, and dumber about the domains they can’t. The reason is likely the ridiculous number of possible interfaces required as apps, content, remotes, display devices, sound systems, and streaming servers proliferate. Normally, we fix this sort of thing with industry standards, but the scope of the problem has gone exponential. Anyone who thinks that the “market” will fix this should be sentenced to three months of broken Internet.

My Sony TV won’t work with Airplay or Sonos without yet another intermediary device, and obligatory remote control.  Heaping on pain, some applications require entry of a password using the TV remote, a byzantine process that gives me something like road rage. Remember when you could just turn on the TV?  

The complete incompatibility of streaming apps, TVs and streaming boxes (Roku) with computer or web security services (like Keychain or OneLogin), is fixable, but will it be fixed? Now add home automation, music systems (can a Bluetooth speaker handle 7.1 surround?)  and AI (“Alexa, can you change Sony sound mode to Sonos?”), and you get a noxious cocktail.

Streaming TV, so elegant in concept, turns out to be a Frankenstein monster, built with the nightmarish DNA of Hollywood lawyers, cable company service, Asian electronics giants, Silicon Valley revenue hackers, and luddite regulators.

Part of the problem involves how content producers get paid. Consumers don’t want to deal with one paywall per content provider, so aggregators (e.g. Netflix, Amazon, etc.) make life simpler with a one-stop shop for content. This looks like the Web did 20 years ago! But all the “portals” (AOL, Yahoo, MSN) ultimately failed.

Is it so different this time?  Or will Netflix ultimately be crushed by a Google-like system that supports access to all content, easily and painlessly? Streaming aggregators think they have it locked, but it’s hard to trust a solution in which the referee is betting on the game.

As evidence of a system in chaos, each party aspires to encroach on the roles of the others. My Internet provider wants to provide content, my display device wants to be the application, etc. Aggregators overlap content, and streaming boxes monetize tune-in advertising. They are all climbing the food chain, fighting for dollars, often to the detriment of their customers.   

Electronic civility will require rules and investment, but who will make the rules or invest?

Sony, for example, has no obligation to integrate with Amazon or Roku, or Sonos, or Siri, or HBO. Sony is loath to support Airplay because, I suppose, it competes with Apple in the smartphone market. But wait, everyone is competing with someone important, so anyone can play that card. In other words, the market dynamics do not favor progress.

I guess all those demurring gadgets are like an Irish stew that's inedible because the meat's fighting the vegetables. I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t make HBO trust your TV.

1 comment about "My Horribly Dis-Integrated Living Room".
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  1. Steven Ledingham from Humans-R-Us, June 12, 2018 at 3:19 p.m.

    This article is so right on. 

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