Another opportunity is missed as competing standards for home integration and multimedia square up for the fight for control of your home
Way back when, I remember going to one of the CES shows in the States – yes, before I got sensible – and finding it abuzz with talk of a new standard. Firewire, I was told left, right and centre, was the Holy Grail, the solution, the answer to life, the Universe and everything.
Using just one cable, the story went, it would soon be possible to transmit audio, video, pictures, data, telephony and home automation signals around the house,, and best of all, everything with a Firewire socket would work with everything else so equipped.
At a stroke, we would see an end to all that nonsense about choosing speaker and interconnect cables, matching components to build a system and quite possibly wars, famine and intolerance.
Yes, Firewire was that good, apparently – and if you were a manufacturer showing products without the blessed socket you might as well have turned up with a wax cylinder phonograph and a hand-cranked movie projector lit with a paraffin lamp.
Of course, as is the way with these things, nothing ever came of it, and aside from a few computer nerds showing a bit of swagger with their Firewire hard drives or printers or whatever, most of us are still using variants on USB and Ethernet on our computer systems, along with some wireless, and HDMI cables, plus a mix of digital and analogue interconnects and speaker cables in our hi-fi and home cinema systems.
The race to integrate our homes
A few years on – well, actually more years than I’d care to admit – the race is on to get our homes integrated.
Or rather, the race is on for manufacturers to convince us that we want to get our homes integrated, so that the audio system will talk to the computer and the phones and the security and lighting and heating and pool filters climate control for our wine cellars and – well, you get the kind of lifestyle dream that’s being sold.
And as I commented a few weeks back, the race is also on for companies to stake their claim on the market one company – Sonos – has more or less sewn up at the moment: the whole-house music thing. From a standing start around a decade back, Sonos has developed into an operation matching in size some of the longest-established name in home entertainment electronics, not to mention dwarfing quite a few of them.
So, having watched the accelerating growth of Sonos for getting on for ten years, some of those companies have decided that Something Must Be Done Before Sonos Takes Over The Whole Market.
Yes, I know – but better late than never, I guess.
Now we have whole-house systems like HEOS by Denon (above), Panasonic’s ALL, and Samsung’s snappily-named Wireless Audio Multiroom, the Simple Audio systems, new start-up Musaic and many more.
And it also seems that everyone wants their own slice of the pie: when a company such as Martin Logan launches a compact bookshelf wireless streaming speaker, it’s clear companies across the audio market are rousing themselves, sniffing the air, and asking ‘Hmm… Colombian? Blue Mountain? The one that comes out of a civet’s bottom…?’
As you might expect, while the existing music streaming systems are all pretty interoperable, being based on DLNA/UPnP – so you could just about have a Linn or Naim network player in your main system and a Cambridge Audio or Musical Fidelity or Pro-ject or whatever in another room –, the new arrivals are looking like they’ll be as exclusive as Sonos, working on what I believe the geeky types call ‘their own eco-systems’.
In other words, the chances of you buying a Samsung unit for one room. a Panasonic for another, a HEOS for a third and them all talking to each other are practically zero: in order to make money from these systems, the newly-arrived companies want to lock you in to their systems.
Just like Sonos does.
But there’s a bigger picture here. Remember that dream I alluded to earlier, where you do the UFO opening credits thing and your office lights up, runs a bath, cues up your favourite playlist and starts making the coffee as your sleek gullwing-doored car drives itself up to the building?
Well, as we are seemingly moving beyond the relatively simple media functionality of DLNA, the Sony-founded, UPnP-based industry alliance set up over a decade ago, and into whole-house integration, the big computer industry companies want a slice of the home entertainment pie – and more.
The Panasonic multiroom audio system, for example, takes its ALL designation from AllPlay, which used to be called MagicPlay (when it was launched a year ago!). This is the media platform launched by chipsets-to-solutions giant Qualcomm, based on its AllJoyn open source peer-networking framework. AllJoyn is now being developed by the AllSeen Alliance, a consortium with sign-ups including LG, Sharp and most recently Microsoft, and very much embedded in the concept of the ‘Internet of Everything’.
Still with me? Well, in common with other rivals to Sonos, but unlike Sonos itself, AllPlay works on your existing Wi-Fi network; Sonos sets up its own mesh network for the music streaming.
Another fine mesh…
But that’s not to say these Wi-Fi-based systems will all work with each other: they’re designed to grab you and hang on to you as a loyal customer for their manufacturer, not play nice.
And while AllPlay/AllJoyn/AllSeen is open-source, and of course has Qualcomm behind it, when it comes to the ‘entertainment plus automation plus everything’, it’s far from being the only dog in the fight. Or indeed even being in the really big fight just yet.
Y’see, if you think the likes of Denon, Panasonic, Samsung and Sonos recognise the big stakes in locking music listeners into their systems, there’s a much bigger battle going on, beside which audio streaming looks like no more than a skirmish.
Apple’s in there, with its HomeKit home automation project, which was launched a few weeks back at its Worldwide Developers Conference, and aims to allow users to tell its Siri voice system to ‘get ready for bed’ and have it turn down the heat, lock the house, dim the lights – all that stuff.
It’s working with consumer electronics and home integration companies like Honeywell and TI to create what it calls ‘a consistent network protocol’.
In other words, in the same way it’s working with the likes of VAG, Fiat group, Jaguar Land Rover and Mazda to ensure its CarPlay infotainment system is integrated into those companies’ vehicles.
Apple as core technology?
And in other other words, to ensure consumers are further locked into the Apple world, to the extent that your choice of phone will influence what washing machine, fridge, air conditioner or car you choose. That makes Apple a pretty powerful partner when it comes to striking deals with other manufacturers.
But of course this is the consumer electronics world, so we’re never going to get a unified standard for all home/car automation or even entertainment streaming – the stakes are much too high for that.
Which is why Google spent $3.2bn – which would of course have bought it a pain fully fashionable headphone company – in February to buy smart thermostat/smoke detector company Nest Labs (above). And last month dropped another $555m to add Wi-Fi security camera company Dropcam (below) to its portfolio.
As Nest founder Matt Rogers said at the time Dropcam became part of his company under the Google umbrella, ‘the plan is for us to work together to reinvent products that will help shape the future of the conscious home’.
Security, heating control, home automation – sounding familiar?
Last month it announced links with a range of companies including Logitech, Mercedes-Benz and white goods company Whirlpool to create a developer program, so you could soon be starting your heating and washing machine from your C-Class on the way home from work – well, it’s almost the UFO title sequence.
And this week Nest has announced that it’s joining forces with Samsung, processing chip maker ARM and a number of other companies to launch a new home automation network protocol called Thread.
Already onboard are lockmaker Yale, chip companies Silicon Labs and Freescale Semiconductor, and the splendidly-named Big Ass Fans, which makes ceiling fans, and the protocol is based around the network language already used by Nest’s smart thermostats and smoke detectors.
The system will use its own mesh network, not standard Wi-Fi, and with Google onboard you can be sure it will be pushing for widespread adoption.
Not that it’ll be alone in the market, as I think I’ve made clear, and I’m pretty sure there will be other players joining the race to tie customers in to their own systems, in the hopes of making big money.
Just as in those heady days of Firewire development, the electronics industry loves standards – so much so, it keeps inventing new ones to allow companies to battle each other.
So if the industry standards we have so far don’t do what you want them to just yet, don’t worry – there’ll be another one along in a minute or two!
Just a thought: maybe this is the kind of unholy confusion those seeking to lead the consumer electronics industry should be trying to sort out. You know, rather than messing around with fatuous, misleading and divisive ‘definitions’ of hi-res audio and 4K TV…
Written by Andrew Everard