Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


If at First You Don't Succeed...January 2003

The traditional version of this saying has an ending that is intended to be inspirational and to encourage repeated and determined effort -- "If at first you don't succeed, try and try again" -- presumably until success is achieved. However, I have heard a second version that may at times be more representative of reality -- "If at first you don't succeed, give up, no sense making a fool of yourself!" Recently, there have been a number of new product introductions that seem to fit the second version better than the first. These products fall into a category that some technology prognosticators have described as representative of "technology convergence". They also often have a direct or indirect effect on the implementation of displays. Let me start with a brief description of three of them.

Haystack Rock

A large Pacific Rim electronics company, well known to us in the display industry, has recently introduced the Internet Digital Refrigerator. In addition to the familiar functions of keeping food cold and spitting out ice cubes on demand, this refrigerator has a 15-inch LC panel connected to a computer running a customized version of Windows 98. This computer can be used for such activities as surfing the net, sending and receiving e-mails, watching TV (with a cable connection), listening to music, recording the dates when items are bought, and leaving electronic notes for other family members. It even has a camera built in for those who prefer to leave video messages. The price of this new combination-technology marvel is currently set at $7,999. This company has also announced plans to introduce other appliances such as microwave ovens that will interact with this refrigerator.

The next example of technology convergence comes from a large US-based electronics company that has announced a personal computer that also acts like a television, the first of what they define as "cross-over products" intended to build enthusiasm in the stagnating personal computer market. This computer comes with a remote control, television tuner, and can record and play television shows and digital music. The price of this combination product is $1,400. However, the monitor, on which all of these computer and TV images will need to be displayed, is not included for this price.

The third "technology convergence" example is represented by the ongoing efforts of several large companies, both software and hardware, to create a market for the home server. This product is intended to do much more than just connect together several computers or peripherals. It is being developed and touted as the central control unit for the above mentioned digital refrigerator, the yet to be introduced digital furnace, the digital lighting system, the home entertainment center, the digital garage door opener, the digital coffee maker, (the digital toothbrush?), and just about anything else that can be identified as having some kind of switching or control element associated with it.

What is going on here? A well known and often stated criteria for building a successful business is "find a need and meet it." What is the need that these products are meeting or the problem that they are trying to solve -- and at what price? Is it maybe that some of us have achieved such wealth that there is virtually no limit to the goods we can acquire, so we go out and buy expensive stuff just for the fun of it? I suppose it wouldn't be bad to be in that category -- but unfortunately most of us I think are not. Why would I want to combine a refrigerator with a computer? Refrigerators are designed to function reliably for at least 20 years. Computers become obsolete in just a few. And by now shouldn't I be just a bit suspicious of one using a modified version of Windows 98? Is there any reason other than novelty to pay $8,000 for a refrigerator that by itself is certainly not worth more than about $2,000, and a computer that is not worth more than $500? And what happens in a year or two when the computer will need to be upgraded or, in the meantime, catches a virus? (I don't suppose it can catch a cold sitting in that refrigerator, can it?) Maybe if one has lots of money these are not issues of concern.

The combination of a TV and computer is perhaps not quite as difficult to understand. The current price is certainly higher than the sum of buying the two separately. Are there clear advantages to the combination? Perhaps the most interesting one is the ability to store and modify audio and video content. The ability to acquire audio and video material from remote sources at times of ones choosing is a nice cross-over feature. However, the producers of this material are not going to be happy if they are not adequately compensated for these acquisitions. Interactive TV technology is in an early stage with many problems still to be worked out. The idea of surfing the net or reading e-mails while also trying to watch TV has an inherent time management conflict. There is also the emotional conflict between the passive activity of watching television and one that requires thinking and responding. Why are some folks trying so hard to make this unnatural marriage work? I suppose once someone can identify and articulate the needs that are worth meeting, all this will become clearer. So far some of the reasons given by the companies introducing these products are not terribly compelling -- "students and people living in small spaces would be top candidates." Since these products come at a premium price, are such people also among the wealthier segments of our society? Hmmm...

Next, we come to the home server. As envisioned by the giant software company located not too far from here, and certain others, this one scares me the most of all. Currently, there are five operating computers in my home. The one I use the most has the latest version of everything on it. So far this week, I have had to restart it at least three times. Tonight, just a few hours before I started writing this column, it froze up completely while opening a JPEG photo file that has nothing whatsoever unusual about it. As is typical, once I restarted the machine, this same file opened with no problem. Nothing else that I own is as unreliable, unpredictable, nor requires the hours of fussing to achieve normal operation. How many of us would tolerate a car that repeatably and unpredictably quit as we were driving down the road, and the dealer told you that this is a perfectly normal condition -- just pull over to the side of the road and restart it. My furnace has operated reliably for at least the last five years. All our other appliances are similarly well behaved. Our several TVs and audio systems have provided years of trouble-free operation. On those rare occasions when something does go wrong, it's pretty easy to isolate the problem and either replace the defective component or get a higher level of professional help. But now the big software giant wants me to entrust all of these reliable and long-life appliances to their latest version of software that requires daily updates (patches) to fix problems that continue to be uncovered even as we speak? I suppose it's somewhat ironic, but the most reliable computer that I have is an old dog of a laptop with a 10-inch passive matrix screen, running on Windows 3.11, on which this column is being written -- because I like the feel of the keyboard and because WordPerfect 5.1 lets me do what I want. This computer's only problem is that the battery died about a year ago, and now it is only as portable as the nearest wall plug. Now there's a problem that I can understand.

Sometimes the products that are most needed seem to be the hardest to find. Why isn't anyone meeting my needs for these? I will mention two that I would like. The simplest one is a remote connection for my various printers. Recently, I have noted the introduction -- with great fanfare and major press releases -- of new remote keyboards and wireless mice. Those are nice, but for me not really necessary. After all, my keyboard and mouse are right there near my monitor and computer box. Where else would I want to have them? However, I am out of desk space for my printers and it would also be handy to be able to access them from my other computers without hard-wired connections, or having to transfer data between machines. Now, for about $250 and several hours of effort, I can create such a remote setup. But if wireless mice and keyboards are such a "big deal" why not sell printers already set up with convenient wireless connections? My other immediate need is for a quick way to look at 35mm and larger format negatives for easy previewing. The typical digital scanners are just too slow, even in their preview modes. I want something like the old-style microfiche readers. I want to be able to put up the images as fast as I can move the negatives under the viewing window. Technically, this is not a difficult challenge. All that is needed is a camera, a simple video processing board that allows for image inversion and some rudimentary color adjustments, and a direct video connection to the monitor. At this stage there is no need to go through any kind of digitizing process. I can do that after I see the pictures that are interesting to me. Have we forgotten that there is an analog world out there? By the way, film continues to be a wonderfully efficient storage medium. One thin page of transparent and flexible plastic can hold many gigabytes of information, and it is instantly accessible for convenient previewing. It seems to me that the visual hand-driven search method still has a lot to offer.

I suppose one benefit that may come from all these attempts at "technology convergence" and "cross-over products" is that among the junkpile of failures we will stumble onto a few gems that consumers will find interesting and truly useful. That will then set off a stampede to develop those newly discovered markets. And no matter what these product categories turn out to be, I'm sure that the latest display technologies will play an important role in their success. But shouldn't there be a easier way to get from here to there? I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this push to "technology convergence" and the creation of "cross-over" products. You may reach me by e-mail at Email, by telephone at 425-557-8850, by FAX at 425-557-8983, or by regular mail at 22513 SE 47th Place, Sammamish, WA 98075.