Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Comics, topless women or math equations?

In today's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof's editorial outlines the race between China and India to become the world's leading power by the year 2100. He highlights India's demographic advantages (more working-age people) and financial system (China's banks are a mess). And he praises China's impressive infrastructure (India has third-rate roads and ports). In the end, he places his bet on China. His column-ending prediction is not particularly controversial, and besides, very few of us will be around to see if he made the right choice.

That said, his column will have a lasting effect on me because of the paragraph in which he points out a primary driver behind each country's emergence on the world stage -- an emphasis on education. Here is the paragraph that captures the essence (bold added by me) :

Most American newspapers lure readers with comics, and some British tabloids with photos of topless women, but a Calcutta daily newspaper is so shameless that it publishes a column on math equations. Imagine titillating readers with trigonometry!

Living in America where the average adult watches 1,600 hours of television per year, titillation with trigonometry really is hard to imagine.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Shorts and Longs (Digital Livingroom)

At last month's Digital Livingroom conference in San Mateo, my co-panelists (Tim Bajarin, Julie Ask, and Mike Langberg) and I were charged with outlining a "roadmap for the future" of the digital livingroom. I shared my views on these six ideas (three longs, three shorts) and asked the audience for its opinion on each. For what it's worth, they tended to disagree with me, but here are the calls I made.
  1. Every consumer electronics device (tvs, clock radios, etc) will be connected to the Internet.

    I'm LONG this idea. This is a great opportunity for hardware companies to get into the recurring revenue stream by selling services and content for their own devices or by charging a gatekeeper fee to others. They will need help with the software to make it all work as they've never had decent software capabilities, and of course Microsoft will try to dominate all these devices. Regardless, we will see networked CE products everywhere.

  2. Consumers will continue to pay $100/month bundled cable/content bills.

    I'm SHORT this one. First it will be just fringe content providers, but eventually even ESPN will want direct-to-consumer relationships. With a networked television, you will be able to sign up for a single content provider directly over the Internet. The cable company will provide a pipe and will still offer content bundles, but no one will be paying $100 per month for a boatload of channels they never watch.
  3. Mommy and grandma will soon be fighting with the teenage kids for Xbox time.

    LONG. It's going to be a different genre of games -- think Mahjong and Tetris. But with the Internet-connect consoles, new online communities will emerge. Business Week already wrote a story on the Gaming Grannies.
  4. We'll all be browsing the web in the kitchen.

    LONG but not in the usual sense. We won't be using a browser on a PC or terminal screen. We'll be looking at dedicated devices designed to communicate specific information. Maybe it's a refrigerator with a handle that changes color when it needs to be re-stocked. Or perhaps we'll have a coffee maker with a small embedded weather forecast display. I doubt all these devices will be using Ambient Devices' network, but I do think Ambient has the right design ideas.

  5. We'll consume our living room content "on the go" (a la Sling Devices).

  6. SHORT. We will consume content on the go, but it will be made for our small form factor portable devices. It will be short clips (3 minutes, not 30). Simple "copy and transmit" devices like Sling may be used to watch a PVR-recorded show in the office, but they won't cut it for mobile devices, on which we will watch purpose-built content.

  7. With all this precious content (digital photos, purchased digital music and movies) on our PCs, a backup server in the home like Mirra will become a must-have.

    SHORT. There is little doubt that backups will become critical as the cost of the content on our hard disks starts to dwarf the cost of the hard disk itself. However, copying content onto another hard disk in the house is not the best solution. Some version of the networked backup services that first emerged in the late 90s (remember the likes of X-Drive?) will return with their sharing and remote access features.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Forget Dolby 7.1, Try 40-Channel Surround Sound

Many of my Bessemer colleagues went to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month. I had attended it in each of the last several years but decided to skip this one. I was slightly disappointed with the small number of new things I saw in 2005 relative to 2004, so I decided to make it an every-other-year event.

Little did I know, my trip to the Museum of Modern Art last week turned out to be a decent substitute for CES. I didn't intend to get an electronics junkie's fix from MOMA, so I was surprised to find two exhibits that conjured up images of CES.

The first exhibit celebrated Pixar's 20 years as an animation studio. It was admittedly annoying to dodge the gaggles of 9-year olds. Half of the parents in New York City decided the Pixar exhibit was a good excuse to schlep their families to the museum. Fortunately, 9-year olds are too short to block the view, so the exhibit was still excellent. I left with a better appreciation for how critical are the talented human artists behind the animation. Computers make it all possible, but the creativity and vision still come from people, not from machines.

Even more impressive than the Pixar stuff was an installation by Janet Cardiff. I wandered into a room devoid of everything but two benches surrounded by 40 speakers configured in a large oval. (Thanks, Washington Post, for the photo.)

Cardiff recorded a 40-person chorus and replicated the sound by channeling each voice through one of the 40 speakers. It was among the most interesting aural experiences I've ever had. You could walk through the room, stopping in front of an individual speaker, and it was as if you were standing nose-to-nose with one member of the chorus. Or you could just sit on the couch in the middle and take it all in. The Washington Post's Blake Gopnik does a fine job describing the piece here, but it is definitely something that needs to be experienced in person, not in print.