The Simpsons Meet Convergence 
Homer Loses Yet Another One

Francis Vale

Step right up! "Everyone gets a prize! You're a sure winner at Microsoft Booth #1328! Play on the Jumbo Jackpot slot machine!" My sweaty palms held this chintzy little Microsoft prize ticket, dreaming dreams of never having to work again, or at the least, winning a cheap handheld PC with MS CE. No such luck.

Well, that's Las Vegas for you, the home of the giant 1999 Winter Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Maybe if I had brought along my Samoan attorney, I would have had a better shot. Fear, loathing, and lust where everywhere on display in Las Vegas this year. The last was produced by the dancing sugarplums of digital convergence in all the vendors' eyes. The two former qualities where generated by collective consumer electronics (CE) industry angst over what Gates & Company had in store to wreck all their finely crafted schemes.

As the guy at the Intelligent Data Bus (IDB) booth for automotive electronics said to me, "the Clarion MS CE car unit is anathema to us." IDB plans to bring an open architecture data bus to cars rolling off the production line come the 2000 model year. Just write a small piece of IDB code, and your new GPS/whatever hoo-hah just plugs right into the car's electronic arteries. Unless, of course, some proprietary MS CE APIs do a crippling hit and run on the nascent IDB effort.

Cisco had a huge invitation-only CES pavilion to demonstrate the IP'd home of the future. In it were all kinds of Jetson family gadgets, like IP-based portable phones, IP-based home teleconferencing, even IP-based 4 megabit/sec wireless networks that zoomed real time video, audio, and TV-PC clients around your house. There was enough stray wireless energy in this New Millennium Home to microwave a frozen chicken until crispy brown. Cisco's plans were fiendishly clever. They didn't demo any consumer electronics gadgets of their own. All Cisco wants to do is find others who will help exponentially increase IP traffic over the 'Net so beleaguered ISPs have to buy ever bigger and more expensive routers.

The final stop on the Cisco tour was a big tout for Sun's Java Jini. The CE industry (specifically, Sony and Philips) now says its has the answer to consumer's digital convergence prayers with Java Jini, which Messrs. S&P have now paired with the HAVi spec (Home Audio Visual interoperability). This new hybrid Jini-HAVi system will suck down bandwidth like a down on his luck lush at the crap tables. This same crapped out guy is also supposed to setup the IP address tables in his Jini-enhanced home. And then there is the little matter of whose and what Jini services are allowed to whom in the family.

Can you imagine the Simpsons gathering around the kitchen table to discuss authorization and IP address policies? And what happens if a non-Jini-HAVi device in your home (like a cell phone, Palm pilot, a home automation system, an all in-one-remote control, etc.) wants to interoperate with one of these new S&P Jini units? A spin on a rigged roulette wheel stands a better chance at winning an answer for the dazed and confused consumer.

As for the PC industry, Thomson Multimedia, Zenith, Microsoft, Intel, Compaq, Dell and others are all getting on Microsoft's new Plug & Play bandwagon, also announced at '99 CES. Plug and Play, otherwise known as plug and pray, is Microsoft's rebuttal to Sun's Jini. The digitally converged future is now darkly clear: Consumer casualties will be staggering as MS-Godzilla and CE-Mothra duke it out in our living rooms.

New GUI wars are even coming to our TV sets. At the '99 CES, it became abundantly clear that the battle for TV GUI real estate is about to go thermonuclear. If the CE vendors get their way, Microsoft will never get a rerun on their new TV sets. The CE vendors now see the Electronic Program Guide (EPG) interface that lists all 2,000 TV channels as being a huge business.

Whoever controls the new EPG TV interface is perceived as owning an even more powerful franchise than the Windows PC desktop. Tune in web access, e mail, and all the rest of the new and imagined Digital TV services, and it's clear that whoever gets to decide where the consumer's eyeballs go next sets the new house odds -- all in his favor, of course. Microsoft will naturally parry with a grand EPG scheme of its own. Look no further than WebTV for some insight.

Sooner or later, the house always wins. So when Microsoft, Sun, Sony, Philips and all the rest yell, "Come collect your prize!", I think I'll pass.

The Bottom Line:
Home Users: Uh oh. Here it comes! Convergence every way but your way. Get ready to discover the joys of reading a good book as it may be the only entertainment device still working in your house.

Business Users: Why should you care? You already know more than half of this new stuff never works as pitched.

Power Users: Hog heaven! Get ready to make zillions of dollars teaching all those "consumers" how to change channels on their new DTV sets.

Copyright 1999, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved

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