LAS VEGAS " A "supersession" at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) " or "One Hundred Thousand Nerds in Sin City" " is a chronic case of hothouse hyperbole.
A "supersession" is only "super" in the sense of words like "superfluous," "supercilious" and "supernumerary." The session's only real glimmer of superiority lies in the magnitude of the egos among the panel of experts.
Among my assigned supersessions this year at CES " an event I am required by marriage to attend " was a panel cryptically called "Digging Into the New-New Digital." True to supersession tradition, five of my six panelists stayed "on message" with Bush-like doggedness, each nakedly promoting the proprietary position of his own company while feigning interest in an industry-wide issue. Most endearing was the panel's lip service to "the consumer."
The idea these guys have for helping out "the consumer" this year is something known as "home networking," which " according to the panel " is more important to "the consumer" than canned beer or world peace.
"The consumers have been telling us for the last two years that they want this capability " any content on any device in the home," said panelist Louis Burns, a VP at Intel.
Really? I could watch porn on my microwave oven!
Well, no. According to my wife, Hotlips (better known as The Brains of The Outfit), watching "Deep Throat" on the microwave would be considered "home automation," a discredited technology.
"Home networking" would simply (well, not simply at all, really) link every form of electronic communication now native to the typical middle-class household " such technologies as television (terrestrial, cable and/or satellite), set-top boxes, personal computer, printer, land-line and cellular phones, Internet, stereo, radio, VCR and DVD, the baby monitor, Palm Pilots and pagers, digital still cameras, wireless camcorders, video-on-demand and that surveillance chip the Department of Homeland Security had implanted in your brain. And more, of course!
The actual "demand" behind "home networking" is the perception, among us consumers, that we've got too many remote controls around the house. Compounding this annoyance is the consumer electronics industry's chronic inability to develop a universal remote that can be programmed " to actually work " by anyone dumber than Stephen Hawking.
The underlying problem is that electronics devices operate on a Babel of "platforms" that are inherently immune to a universal remote. Panelist David Nagel, president and CEO of PalmSource, put the issue succinctly: "We've gotten very good at proliferating formats that are incompatible."
However, my panelists insisted that this difficulty is close to a solution " in exactly three years.
However, the industry's response to the threat of a universal remote has been to add more devices to the remote, under the rubric, "home networking." Adding more stuff to an already dauntingly complicated (not to mention non-existent) universal remote would render it instantly obsolete " a fact noted by my expert panel. Therefore, "home networking" must go beyond a one-size-fits-all remote control, requiring a "more sophisticated user interface."
By this, the panel meant a display that would appear on a TV screen or a personal computer. This interface would come to the consumer by way of a chip or a television set-top box. Or, it would be interoperable through a "third device," with its own "user interface," which would feature dozens of menus and sub-menus (like Windows '98 or, more familiarly, a phone call to one of those companies that has fired all its customer service people so that callers can spend a half-hour obeying robot voices and punching numbers).
This "third device" would be accessed by, well... a remote control.
I was probably the only live "consumer" spying on this "supersession."
But I wasn't the only one confused by this scenario. Several panelists conceded that "interoperability," without which you can't achieve every consumer's dream of linking your phone to your personally customized EPG while activating your rewritable DVD, is a helluva problem.
Camillo Martino, COO at Zoran, said, "If it's not simple for the consumer, then it's not going to get off the ground."
Scott Smyers, a VP at Sony, put the issue in a charmingly elitist nutshell, pointing out that, with "home networking," the industry is trying "to sell incredibly complicated devices to people who are fundamentally uneducated."
Good point. How do you sell "interoperability" to 100 million couch potatoes whose VCRs have been blinking "12:00" since 1989?
The silly (consumer) question I couldn't ask " because the panel took no questions " was why interoperability at all? Why not a noninterconnected solution in which people " as has been true since the stone ax diverged from the bone needle " use one tool for one purpose?
The unspoken admission of my panel was that firms like Sony and Intel cannot sustain their enormity on coherent and durable products that do one thing well. "Networking," better known among mere laymen as "chaos," is the Willie Sutton answer to why a TV can't, in the brave new future, be just a TV, or a phone just a phone.
"Networking" isn't where "consumers" are. But that's where the money is.
--David Benjamin, a novelist and journalist who lives in Paris, writes occasionally on technology issues, usually from the Luddite point-of-view. His latest book is The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked, from Random House.