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The Missing Piece at CES, Redux

The Missing Piece at CES, Redux

Colin Dixon, Practice Manager, Broadband Media


February 14, 2008 

After the 2006 Consumer Electronic Show, I wrote a TDG Opinion regarding the management, or lack thereof, of networked devices in the home. I pointed out the profusion of connected, multifunction devices which seemed to be bringing more (not less) complexity into our lives; and that consumers will no doubt need some help managing all this "stuff." I also suggested that network operators step up to this challenge and help consumers deal with the growing mire of devices and connections, a move which, while involving some short-term cost, would offer true long-term value to both the consumer and the operator (if not the entire "digital home" industry).

Well, it's two years later and the market is finally showing signs of making some progress in this area, although the response from operators continues to be somewhat disappointing. In this TDG Opinion, I want to talk about two different approaches to the ballooning complexity associated with home networking and a new service you can call when things get out of hand. I hope to revisit this subject frequently over the coming months.

Content Virtualization - Location? Forget About It!
One of the most troubling nuisances we face as users of digital media is managing all of our content. We have pictures, movies, and music scattered across our cell phones, cameras, PCs, PDAs, and a litany of other multi-function devices. Inevitably, when it comes time to access some of this content, it ends up being on a device other than the one we're using at that time. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a service that not only keeps track of all this digital content for us, but also allows us to get at it regardless of our location?

Orb Networks aims to provide such a service. The Company's place-shifting technology (a content virtualization and distribution platform) already serves some five million users, providing them with access to their PC-stored media from virtually any location(1). With its newly-released Orb Embedded Solutions (or OeS) in place, Orb now wants to license this technology to other companies.

How does OeS make this all happen? Let's say you are sitting in your living room watching TV and want to watch a video you captured and stored on your wireless PDA. Earlier, when you walked into the house, your PDA automatically associated with your home network. Because the PDA is also OeS-enabled, your home server (regardless of what that device may be) automatically found the video on the PDA, so when you browse for content on your TV, the video is listed as available. If you select it for viewing, OeS figures out how to get the video to you. In this case, the PDA cannot stream it so OeS moves the file to a PC and tells the PC to stream it to your TV. All of this, of course, takes place without you, the viewer, knowing anything about it.

The promise of such functionality is very alluring: with OeS acting as the content traffic cop, consumers can stop worrying about where the media resides and just sit back and enjoy it from wherever they may be. No need for multiple services to enjoy the same content on different devices - OeS figures out the resources needed for you to have access to your entire digital media library on virtually any device from virtually any location. Cool stuff! Orb's content virtualization software is an exciting approach that may hold the key to dramatically simplifying our increasingly-complicated media experiences.

And LELA Steps into the Room....
I also wanted to mention the new line of 802.11n wireless routers from Linksys. Aside from the fact that Linksys has made these devices sexy enough to put in your living room, they also feature a new installation and maintenance utility called LELA (Linksys EasyLink Advisor). LELA walks you through the installation of your home network, as do many of the competing products in this space. What sets this utility apart, however, is its network maintenance tools and user-friendly network map.

Once LELA configures your router, a quick glance at the graphical map tells you exactly which devices are connected and working and which are not. Perhaps of greater importance, LELA also tells you if there are unauthorized devices on your network, highlighting these "intruders" in red. As well, users are alerted if there are device connectivity problems and simple tools are provided to help troubleshoot these issues. LELA even provides assistance in keeping the firmware updated on your Linksys connected devices, not just on the router itself.

LELA would appear to be a network management tool for the masses; whether the masses are ready to assume the role of "home network administrator" is another question. That being said, LELA does provide a simple and intuitive set of tools that pretty much anyone can understand. At the same time, running tests and taking corrective action may still be beyond the abilities of most home network users. In such cases, where can one turn when they encounter a problem with all of this "stuff"?

Help is Just a Phone Call Away
In-home support for PCs and networks continues to be a thorn in the side of the average consumer. Unfortunately, options remain surprisingly limited. A call to your broadband operator may provide some help if they happen to find that the problem lies in their network or equipment; if not, that's where their responsibility ends. Calling the tech support line of a router or modem manufacturer usually results in the same blame game, especially if the problem doesn't lie within their equipment (not to mention many now charge for support calls). The same is true for software providers like Microsoft.

Yes, companies like Geek Squad are available to help out: they'll gladly take ownership of the problem. Yet with charges that start at $249, one can easily end up paying more for service than the cost of a new PC or home network. Ouch.

Another approach is that provided by A simple call to an 800 number puts you in contact with a technician who listens to the nature of PC or network problem. The technician then does a little research while you wait on the phone and determines if they can fix your problem. If so, you pay $99 and they guarantee results; they don't fix it, you don't pay. They also warranty their quality of work.

I called regarding a problem that's been a source of constant irritation for me: neither of my two Media Center XP machines will go to sleep automatically, and when put to sleep manually they wake themselves up. I called and spoke with Ryan, a technician in Syracuse New York. He walked me through the installation of a remote client and, once installed, he took over my machine remotely. I watched as he walked through a number of steps to fix the problem. After about 20 minutes, my machine was obediently putting itself to sleep.

All in all, this was a very pleasant experience. However, before you call be aware that they only handle Microsoft Windows, no Macs or Linux machines allowed.

(1)"Orb Networks Continues Phenomenal Growth, Surpasses 5M User Mark," Orb Networks Press Release, February 12, 2008. 

About the Author 

Colin Dixon is a well-known and respected industry analyst who manages TDG's efforts in broadband media. He has led numerous teams from Microsoft, Oracle, and Liberate. Currently, Colin is working with major companies in developing their market strategies in the emerging "Over the Top" markets and open broadband delivery.  Colin is the author of many reports and opinion pieces including Broadband Video: Redefining the Television Experience and Bending the Rules of Time and Space: Trends and Analysis of Place Shifted Media


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