The myth of the digital lifestyle

I was intrigued to hear that at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, Bill Gates delivered a keynote presentation on "the digital lifestyle," a topic Microsoft has been touting for some time.

According to various reports, the presentation was somewhat overwhelming with Gates attempting to move "live" digital content seamlessly from one device to another with all sorts of bells and whistles.

Last year Gates forgot the First Rule of Presentations (essentially a restatement of Murphy's Law): No matter how slick the demo is in rehearsal, when you do it in front of a live audience the probability of a flawless presentation is inversely proportional to the number of people watching, raised to the power of the amount of money involved.

So it was at CES 2005 that Gates tried to live the Digital Lifestyle on stage. He attempted to transfer photos wirelessly from a Nikon camera to a Windows Media Center PC. The Windows Media Center PC did what Windows has been known to do, shall we say, "occasionally": It froze. There, on stage, in front of an audience of thousands, a bright, shiny PC turned into an expensive boat anchor. Mr. Gates wound up on stage holding his digital device in his hand with marketing egg on his face.

Were we surprised? Not even slightly. But if the richest man in the world, backed up by some of the smartest engineers in the world, couldn't pull off a canned demo, we had to wonder what hope there was for Joe Average to get much more than a headache from his digital lifestyle?

But forgetting last year's problems, this year's demo of the Digital Lifestyle worked more or less as planned. An overwhelming, breathtaking torrent of tech coming to a PC, no, a cellphone, no, a toaster near you!

In his demonstration this year Gates transferred a news broadcast from a home system to a cellular phone, then to an office system and finally to a workstation in an airport. Throughout all these transfers the news broadcast apparently continued to play. Yawn.

Other interpretations of the digital lifestyle have any and all devices and objects communicating with us and with each other. I'm not sure why all these things would need to talk, and frankly, the prospect of my refrigerator telling the supermarket I'm out of orange juice and snagging me a coupon fills me with a profound horror.

But the majority of thinking and engineering that underpins the digital lifestyle is focused on content - the ability to acquire and replay television, movies and music. Much of the meat of Microsoft's announcements at CES concerned deals it has done with DirectTV and MTV.

So, you may be wondering just what is this digital lifestyle that Gates and other pundits would have us believe a) is just around the corner, b) will be valuable to us, and c) will work?

Let's be honest. As neato as it might be to juggle content, media and devices with wild abandon, who really cares? Do I need "Desperate Housewives" streamed to me in real time? No. Do I need "CSI Miami" available anywhere at any time? No. Will missing Fox News cause me mental anguish and make me dangerously uninformed? No.

The digital lifestyle is a marketing ploy. Nothing more, nothing less. It is defined by services that aren't needed, cost too much, and rely on technologies that are naïve, over-architected and underdeveloped.

Until Gates can deliver a flawless demonstration of the digital lifestyle that shows something other than ever-more-exotic and less reliable ways to consume the same old content, we can rest assured that the digital lifestyle will remain fabulously irrelevant.

Is your lifestyle digital or analog? Tell backspin@gibbs.com or discuss in Gibbsblog.

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