Best Practice: The Need For Platforms Rather Than Products

Back in 2010, I had a slide in one of my technology trends presentations that asked ‘Are people making product choices or platform choices?’ How far this has now evolved was really brought home to me a few days ago when I visited a customer for whom we had installed a system seven years ago.

Though it still worked perfectly, it felt so dated. There was no Airplay or Bluetooth audio, no streaming services, no remote access, no method of control from mobile devices and an HDMI matrix switch so dated that If put on eBay today, I doubt it would sell at any price. I have written many times about how the phrase ‘future proof’ should be banned from The Industry vocabulary and this system was a perfect example. From state of the art to obsolete in seven years. In his essay "The Law of Accelerating Returns", Ray Kurzweil wrote:

'An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense “intuitive linear” view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). The “returns,” such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity — technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.'

With the exponential change in technological advancement, so too we will have an exponential change in how fast systems become obsolete.

Video As an example, video distribution and display devices is an area where this rate of change is faster than most. The Amazon Fire TV I bought under a year ago has already been superseded by a UHD capable model. The UHD TVs that many bought even 18 months ago are now unlikely to be able to display HDCP 2.2 encrypted content. The future holds even more obsolescence with HDR (High Dynamic Range) and REC2020 (Wider Colour Gamut) displays around the corner. Though we always need to ask ourselves if the upgrade is really worth it, we at least need to start designing our systems in a way that makes the upgrade possible. This is where the concept of designing platforms rather than product centred systems comes in.

Todays-latest-thing-is-tomorrows-obsolete-bix-that-sits-in-the-bottom-of-a-drawer-400x225The Platform Just like when the OS model is used for networking, platforms start with the physical layer. This is the combination of copper cables, fibre optic cables and wireless radio transmissions that carry all the data necessary for the various subsystems in a building. In todays era of The IoT (Internet of Things) physical connections are being surpassed by wireless ones for the transmission of data. Sky are fighting this in the UK with the upcoming launch of their new SkyQ system. This will use a combination of Wi-Fi and Powerline networking to deliver a multiform system. The future of entertainment, however, will be in scaling the personal scale experience to become a room or house experience. As technology advances, so does the power and capability of the mobile device (phone or tablet). It is these devices that are becoming the centre of our digital lifestyle both in and out of the home, and that form the basis of a platform-based solution.

In a platform-based solution, the things that we hang on walls, install in ceilings and put in cabinets become simple rendering devices that turn the personal scale experience of a mobile device onto a room scale experience. The content, control and power remains in our hands. This is a very different architecture to the costly matrix-switched architecture so beloved by the industry. Where we put these devices is also changing. How many of those matrix-switched systems that you have installed will be able to transport UHD, HDR, REC2020 content? If you change the hardware, will the installed infrastructure support the increased bandwidths? Given that HDBaseT in its current form is limited to 10.2Gb/s, the future is murky as to how we distribute these signals at all over copper. There will always be cases where it is extremely difficult to locate equipment local to a display device due to space constraints. Interior designers are not known for being too receptive to bandwidth discussions. These scenarios excepted, here are some tips for designing platforms rather than systems.

  1. Put the customer in control of their own future. Most consumers, and especially those who are young enough to be considered Digital Natives are becoming more and more tech savvy. They will not want to pay thousands and wait weeks for you to come along and re configure and re program their system once the latest and greatest streaming box is released. Put this power back in their hands by allowing for expansion, leaving clearly labelled spare cables and installing control systems that can be modified by the end-user. The latter suggestion may have you all up in arms at the lost revenues but it’s a reality that we must face and prosper from rather than fight. At CEDIA Expo 2015, many of the big established control system manufacturers were showing just such systems. The more commercially savvy amongst them allow end users to re-program, but charge for the extra functionality and give the installing dealer much of this revenue. The new World is upon us, we just need to think of new business models to go with it.
  2. Make up some of that lost control system revenue by installing the best possible enterprise grade Ethernet and Wi-Fi networks. There is a good argument for installing a wireless access point per room. This will ensure that actual data throughput (not just those silly numbers they put on the side of the box) is maximised for all those Wi-Fi enabled IoT products your customer are going to buy from Amazon and instal. Again, this will happen - Don’t fight it, but thrill your customers with how great their Wi-Fi is compared to their friends pulling their hair out trying to get this stuff to work. Consider installing a Wi-Fi system that uses a controller. This will ensure that all the connected access points are optimally configured at all times to deliver the highest throughput, and also ensure that roaming is handled reliably.
  3. Great wireless networks need great wires. No matter how good wireless gets, we still need wires. Design a network that acknowledges that -
  4. When discussing the initial concept with the customer, acknowledge what electronic ecosystems they have. A family that uses Apple mobile devices will have different immediate need than one who uses Android. This situation, however, may and probably will change. Don’t preclude the possibility that other devices from other ecosystems may be brought onto the platform. Set expectations about what will work with what.
  5. Lighting is the next subsystem that if we look just over the current technological horizon will be completely changed by the IoT revolution. No subsystem is safe from the IoT revolution. It will not be long before every luminaire in a building has the potential to touch the network. Once this happens, lights will no longer be simple things that we switch on and off, and dim. There will be a range of different luminaries using a range of different communications protocols and physical layers being powered by a combination of mains and DC (Think PoE). Though we will still need the humble light switch for a while longer, this will likely become a simple touch point able to communicate with any IoT device across the network. We are already seeing the genesis of this now with products such as Philps Hue and LIFX.

Conclusion We have only touched upon our platform based future and currently it is a way of thinking rather than a fully form and structured design methodology. What is certain, however, is that our increasingly tech savvy consumers are no longer going to be happy with the increasing rate of obsolescence that current system designs bring. Rather than technology liberating them, many current systems constrain their users by not allowing them to embrace the IoT revolution. We can’t fight it. Let’s embrace it.

Peter Aylett is a world-renowned speaker and lecturer in residential technology, and the Technical Director at Archimedia, a multinational high-end residential integrator in The Middle East. He is also currently Chair of CEDIA’s International Technology Council Applied Content Action Team, and a regular contributor to HiddenWires. 

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