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Connections 2004 conference notebook

May 18, 20043 mins

* Digital home visions extend beyond entertainment, Part 1

The digital home is getting serious, but I don’t mean what you think. I mean the technologies we’re using to build the fun stuff, the work-from-anywhere stuff, will be the same ones to revolutionize our healthcare systems and Third World economies in the coming decades. The wheels are in motion. But first, we need to figure out how to work the remote. 

The Connections 2004 conference, hosted by market research firm Parks Associates in Dallas recently, drew more than 800 vendors and visionaries, most with entertainment on the brain – digital rights management, HDTV, personal and digital video recorder devices (PVR/DVR), online movie services, media servers, anywhere access to personal digital music stores, and, of course, the remote control.

The remote is a huge deal to these folks, some seven-headed Hydra that’s scaring consumers away from buying digital home devices. That we have half-a-dozen of them on the coffee table and our babysitters don’t know how to change channels or record shows is keeping a lot of people up at night, I found.

In his keynote, John Sculley, former PepsiCo president and Apple CEO, provided a 20,000-foot view of the industry. The digital home market will mimic the PC market in its development by going through three phases: curiosity, useful and indispensable. Today, the market has made it to the “useful” stage and is struggling to enter “indispensable”; to come up with products and services consumers can’t live without. The next cell phone, the next iPod.

Sculley is now on the board of OpenPeak, a start-up that’s developing a simple homogeneous software interface for connecting and managing all our devices. He argued that because all the hardware is becoming commoditized, “innovation will be about the intangibles” – like a seamless integration between devices OpenPeak promises. (Never mind Apple’s iPod, a hardware device, vaulted the digital music services industry.)

When Sculley said OpenPeak is focused on changing consumer behavior in connecting devices, my colleague Keith Shaw leaned in to whisper, “They want to change my behavior.” His tone was ominous, so you can bet Keith’ll be writing about this in his new HomeLAN Adventures column (see editorial link below).

“It’s a badge of honor for me that I know how to use all my remotes and program all my devices,” he added.

Many speakers like Tony Weiss, the president and COO of CompUSA, argued that consumers won’t buy digital home gear because they’re afraid, uncomfortable and overwhelmed by the technology. But maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe they just don’t want to, don’t have the money, or have other things on their minds?

As for me, I’m not so interested in remotes, and like Keith, I’m fine with managing multiple interfaces. And I know too much about the cool stuff that’s coming in six months that I never buy anything today. But I am intrigued by the work Intel and others have begun in the areas of elder care and telemedicine, as well as ways Wi-Fi phones can boost developing nations, which I’ll tell you about next time.