Friday, July 15, 2005

My MCE Agenda

I think we can all agree that in business everyone has an agenda of some sort. When I started this blog my agenda was to introduce the MCE into the SI industry so we could sell software for this new platform. Now that our plans have changed I no longer have any agenda or ulterior motive to promote. I am free to speak my mind about how I think MCE will impact the SI industry without worrying about how it will affect D-Tools MCE product sales.

More to come.....

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Dark Side of DRM

I mentioned in this post my delight with the Yahoo Music Unlimited service and how it changed the way I consume music. Well after about 30 days of living with it I can say that change is not always good. The service still works, it just does not work well and is far from a seamless iPod/iTunes experience.

To start with I bought my daughter Emily an orange Creative Zen Micro for her 6th grade graduation. She was very happy. After the initial frustration of upgrading the firmware and software packages to make it work with the Yahoo Music service MS DRM I could not get the actual Yahoo Music Engine to install. I am pretty good with this stuff, I tried everything short of a reformat on her MCE PC.

I punted and just had her rip her CD's to MP3 use the WMP interface. That worked well for a while until she got tired of her music collection and wanted more music. Since I didn't feel like F#$&ing with her PC anymore I installed the Yahoo Music engine on the FR MCE PC. That worked OK but when I tried to download the music I got a "more than three PC" subscription error and had to deactivate a machine. That was the third PC but I tried to deactivate the others and got the unable to deactivate error.

I punted again and just had her use my personal PC to DL the songs she wanted. Of course now my personal music library is now polluted with Diana Degarmo, Simple Plan and the A-Teens.

Next I tried to get my Zen to sync with my PC and I would get an I/O error. I messed with this for about two hours the other night and I finally gave up and reformatted my Zen Micro and installed new firmware. Kind of reminded me of the old Win 98 days, if it does not work then reformat and start all over. That fixed the problem and I can now DL new songs but now about 25% of the songs that I DL say there is a problem with the DRM when I try and load into my Zen. These were the same songs that I previously had no problem with. Maybe I should reformat my PC?

So what is the impact of DRM for the SI industry? The way I see it you should avoid like the plague if you have to install for a third party. You will never finish the project. The end users who pay for our expertise will not tolerate these kinds of caveats the way a teenager would. I am a power user of this type of tech and I can not get it to work as promised. I do not see how a normal consumer could expect to get this to work satisfactory. For the time being I would stick to iPods and non DRM MP3 and CD's.

Speaking of iPods, I regret selling mine. It was easy to use and it always worked. The promise of a Zen Micro, DRM and Yahoo Music Unlimited does not meet with reality.

Monday, July 11, 2005

D-Tools exiting the MCE software space

Due to circumstances pretty much beyond my control D-Tools is not going to be creating any software for the Microsoft Media Center platform. We had some great products and services in process but unfortunately I had to shut down the MCE division and had to lay off the developers. This has nothing to do with the health of D-Tools or our products. It was made very clear to me by a company with much greater marketing and development resources that some of our planned MCE products would not be financially viable in the near future.

If evenly matched, fight, if outnumbered, retreat.
Sun-Tzu - The Art of War and Charlie Sheen as Bud in Wall Street

This kind of sucks because we had some great people and some great ideas. Oh well, another life lesson learned.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Back from Emerald Bay

What a great time! The weather was PERFECT, the kids were great, kayaking was awesome, we had about 20 friends and family visiting and staying with us. Everyone had a blast. Check out some of the pics.

Emily and the view of Emerald bay from the teahouse on Fanette Island

Alexis (Hollywood) and Ryan (future rock god) at sunset on the lake


Aaron (red boat) leading the Kayak tour

Emily, XR and view from 8500'

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Going Camping at Emerald Bay Lake Tahoe

No MCE rants for at least a week. Going camping on Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe. Man, I can't wait, I love this place, this is our third Fourth in the same spot. This has to be one of the prettiest places on the planet. I reserved two prime spots on a bluff overlooking the bay and the lake. It is AWESOME!

We have my RV, mountain bikes, my dual sport XR 600 motorcycle, kayaks, tents, a ton of food and booze and up to twelve friends and family will be joining us over the next week. My good friend Steve M and his wife are even coming from Maui to make this gig.

Check out some of the pics from last year

Mountain Girl Emily at sunset on the lake

The Master Bedroom

View of the lake at 9000' and my old XR

Monday, June 27, 2005

What it would take to get the SI industry to adopt Media Servers

The deeper I get into this topic the more I realize that there is a lot of FUD surrounding Media Servers in the SI industry. Audio servers like Audio Request and Escient have been well accepted for years and video servers like the Kaleidescape are becoming more mainstream. What is it about combining audio and video into a single box that has everyone so concerned?

I guess one answer is that Media Servers upset the status quo. A well implemented audio and video server product in a single box can be a greatly disruptive technology. Most audio and video servers with the possible exception of Meda Bravos are really just parts of a complete system. They really depend on switchers, control systems and custom software to work at an acceptable level. A well implemented Media Server can very eloquently function as a stand alone product. There is a lot of money at stake propping up these complicated, stand alone technologies from both a manufacturer and installer point of view. Complicated is expensive and CEDIA has made great strides training people how to install these types of systems.

I guess people are worried because what once sold for $25,000 will now sell for $2,500.00. I would be concerned if I was going to lose a zero as well. However technology marches on, there is no stopping it. Ignoring technology will not make it go away. The IT industry has evolved and flourished around major technology changes every 18 to 24 months. Even in our own industry we have seen video display devices plummet in price, size and complexity yet skyrocket in picture quality over the past couple of years. So what happened? Did we sell less? Did project budgets drop? No, the market expanded exponentially and the people who were going to spend $100K on a theater could now get more than a 9” CRT and a video processor.

The same thing is going to happen with Media Servers. You will not need to spend all that time and money configuring stand alone components for the majority of your clients media needs. That does not mean that they will not need touch screen systems to extend to the rest of the home system, high quality power amps, speakers, display devices, furniture and lighting systems. It just means that now your clients will have more money for these systems and there will be more clients.

I already have gotten a certain amount of shit for these views but hey, don’t shoot the messenger. According to the CE Pro Top 100 Media Servers are where they expect to see the most growth. The sooner the SI industry adopts the Media Server the sooner the industry can get to the next level of growth. Media Servers are the future of the SI industry, embrace the future.

RSS and Atom Feeds

I got a lot of pings saying that this Blog was not compatible with news readers. Being new to blogging and Blogger I was not sure what the problem was. I just found out that Blogger does not like documents that were created in MS Word and then pasted into the create screen. The non standard HTML blows up the feed.

Anyway I went through my articles and took out all the non standard HTML and validated my feed with FEED Validator

It seems to be OK now, sorry for any confusion and thanks for the feedback.

PS: Still not right, Feed Validator not happy after my last post. All the problems seem to be in the template header which I have not touched. Any ideas?

Friday, June 24, 2005

In Defense of DRM

I was going to write my own thoughts on the advantages of DRM but this article by Peter Rojas via engadget eloquently went over everything I would want to say.

The bottom line is DRM is good for everyone. Without some sort of DRM the content providers will not allow us to enjoy their media. And it is their media, when we buy a CD or DVD or any software for that matter we are just buying the rights to view/listen/use to that media, we do not own the content. Well implemented DRM allows us instant access to an ever expanding universe of media without hassle.

I subscribe to the Yahoo Music Unlimited service and for $60.00 a year I get access to a million tracks on three PC's and three compatible portable devices. I effing love this service. Not only does it have most of the music I am interested in but it has a killer personal radio feature and recommendation engine. I shelved my iPod and now use a Creative ZEN Micro. It is so easy any convenient to use that I don't even bother to rip my CD's anymore, easier to just DL from Yahoo Unlimited.

The best part is that it is 100% legal and the artists are getting compensated. In addition I am now exposed to the power of the community that likes the same things I like and refers new artists to me. I see this as renaissance period for the music industry and a way to make up for lost ground.

Unlike all the other restrictive DRM I have experienced the Yahoo service feels like I own the media. I can listen to my music at my work PC, my FR MCE and my home theater MCE and I can take it with me whenever I want to. I will gladly pay $60.00/year or more for the rest of my life, I just want to enjoy the universe of media available for a reasonable fee, I do not have to own it.

The sooner we all embrace well implemented DRM the sooner we can gain access to the all the incredible media out there.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Great technical review of the latest nVidia graphics processor

I really don’t care that much about the latest video cards because for the most part they only affect the gaming market but this card is aimed at both the gaming and high quality video playback consumer. I just read this review of the new nVisia 7800GTX GPU at HTPC News. While it looks like a high end gaming card it also looks to be optimized for HDTV and 1920X1080P resolution. This new processor seems to push the limit in current and future video processing with H.264 digital video codec support. The drivers mentioned in the article are designed for optimized HDTV display as well. This card is supposed to be more efficient that the nVidia 6 series which hopefully means better thermal management. A card like this will really not be appropriate for living room use if it needs a small GPU fan spinning at 7000 RPM. I think it bodes well for the media server market when a leading company like nVidia starts to put this much emphasis on video quality and compatibility.

These guys really get it

I just received this newsletter from our D-Tools SI partners and resellers in Australia, Convergent technology. Nick Libertone and the Convergent team really get what makes our software tools so useful. At D-Tools we get so caught up in the forest we sometimes can not see the trees and lose focus on what makes our solution helpful to system integrators. Nick and team clearly illustrate what is important and how to communicate all aspects of a SI project. Check out their web based Project Management interface as well.

Great job guys.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The TAO of Media Center Edition (MCE)

My thoughts on what makes a Media Center work well

1. An MCE box is an A/V device, it should look like one. This means no beige towers or notebooks. Back at the turn of the century A/V style PC cases were almost impossible to find. There are now dozens of high quality cases and system vendors readily available.

2. MCE PC’s are meant to be part of the living room environment. This means that they must be quiet and run cool. Quiet is somewhat of an objective term, what I mean is that a MCE box should run to the point of almost silence or south of 20db. This is maybe the greatest hardware challenge facing MCE boxes. In the PC world everything is measured by performance and higher performance = faster clock speeds which = greater energy consumption and heat which more cooling fans which = more noise. There are a number of viable solutions to this Catch-22 of performance vs. heat vs. noise that I will elaborate on in the future.

3. MCE PC’s are for MEDIA ONLY. Do not use your living room MCE PC for normal PC tasks. I know it is hard to fight the urge to play Half Life 2, check email and surf the on a big screen HDTV but you must be strong and resolute. As soon as you venture beyond the MCE UI you are entering virusville, malware city and spyware town. This is especially true if you are installing and servicing MCE boxes.

4. Only use VGA or DVI (HDMI) capable displays with your MCE PC. MCE PC’s graphic sub systems have the amazing ability to map pixel for pixel to the native resolution of your display device. Anything other than a DVI or VGA hookup will be either very hard to configure or look like crap. If you are masochist you can get acceptable results with component video but anything lower is not worth the trouble.

5. Use the coax or optical digital out for audio. Currently MCE’s make for a crappy pre-amp. Although they are capable of direct 7.1 output and can decode the various sound formats there is no easy may to manage this within the MCE interface. In the future I imagine a clever software company will create some sort of interface that will be able to analyze the audio signal in the digital domain and then automatically choose the appropriate decoder and format. The only caveat to this is if you are just using stereo for all audio playback then you can plug in some powered speakers.

6. Cyberlink PowerDVD 6 is the best MCE DVD decoder. It looks so good I can not imagine what the high end, stand alone video processor companies will be selling in the future. Well done MCE UI too. I have tested all of the available decoders on my system, however your mileage may vary.

Current, In-Depth review of MCE 2005 in Toms Hardware

This is a great in-depth review of the Microsoft WMC 2005 OS. Tom's Hardware is notorious for hard hitting, honest and straight forward reviews. Part one of this review focus on setup, cable and satellite hookup, TV Playback and recording and the Electronic Program Guide (EPG). I was thinking about writing something like myself but this is much more complete and credible, I guess.

Worth the read.

Monday, June 20, 2005

NVIDIA Technology Receives Industry's Highest Video Quality Certification for Home Theater PCs

NVIDIA ForceWare(TM) Release 72.14 Driver Also Offers New Extensions to Simplify the Process of Configuring HDTVs for Windows Media Center Edition PCs

SANTA CLARA, Calif., June 20 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- NVIDIA Corporation (Nasdaq: NVDA - News), a worldwide leader in graphics and digital media processors, today announced that the NVIDIA GeForce(TM) 6600 and 6800 graphics processing units (GPUs) and the NVIDIA ForceWare(TM) Release 72.14 driver are now Imaging Science Foundation Research Labs (ISF RL) certified, indicating that these products meet ISF's standards for artifact-free film and sports viewing, superb color fidelity, quiet operation, and other home entertainment-based quality parameters. Dedicated to improving the quality of electronic imaging, the ISF has been testing and certifying leading high-end video consumer products since 1994.

Media Center Edition vs. Virus's and Malware

A somewhat unscientific test to see if MCE PC's are inherently virus prone.

One of the loudest objections I get about MCE from peers in the system integration industry usually centers around virus's and malware. I am sure that at one point or another most of us have an infected PC that brought productivity to a halt. Their (valid) point is that underneath the simple UI of a MCE PC beats the heart of a Windows XP system and the inherent virus and malware risks.

My point is that PC's don?t get virus's, people give them virus's. A MCE PC connected to the internet through a router will not automatically get a virus. A user must download some software and give that PC the virus. One of the unique features of the MCE interface is that if you take the keyboard and mouse away a user can not easily get into the windows desktop and download any malicious software.

To prove my point I have a MCE 2005 edition in my Family Room that I have had in place since October 04. This MCE box has never had any anti virus or anti-spy ware software installed. For the most part this box just is a media only box and is not used as a standard PC. My entire family uses this box; it is on 24/7 and has been as reliable as a VCR. It is connected to our home network via cat 5 to a Linksys wireless router. It has never missed a recording and has never crashed.

My somewhat unscientific survey will be to run Lavasoft's Ad-aware SE and see if a MCE box that is not used as a PC has attracted any malware. My hypothesis is that since this PC, for the majority of the time is used just as a Media Center it will be malware free.

The screen capture below proves my hypothesis. As you can see from the screen capture below the only malicious software found in the system was from tracking cookies. A tracking cookie is used to track your movement across sites and do not generate pop-ups or other malicious actions. Compare this report to my 10 y/o daughters PC with hundreds of serious infections that need to be cleaned on a monthly basis.

Conclusion: Media Center PC's are not inherently malware prone. It takes user intervention to exit the MCE UI to the Windows desktop and download and install this malicious software. An MCE box with limited access to the Windows desktop will likely never get a infected with any malicious software.

To help solve this issue D-Tools has "MCE Lock" software in development that will password protect the Windows desktop but still allow the user to use a keyboard and mouse.

Ad-Aware screen capture

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Interested in integrating Media Servers with whole house systems?

According to a survey of the CE Pro Top 100 integrators Media Servers are where they expect their biggest growth this year, up from number 4 last year. However last year it was not called a Media Server then is was categorized as an audio or video server. So what is a “Media Server” and how will it impact your business over the years to come.

Media Servers typically go beyond just serving up audio and video content. The best examples out there now seamlessly integrate multi tuner PVR functionality with interactive TV guides, off air HDTV, multi format music recognition, ripping, cataloging and playback. Digital photo import and playback, DVD playback and playback of subscription and non-subscription streaming media. The best of class media servers blend this into a seamless user interface and allow for third party control and add ons.

A best of breed example of a Meda Server would be a specialized PC running Microsoft Windows Media Center 2005 on something that like this Niveus Media Denali hardware platform. The Niveus Media Center Denali is a one of the few high performance boxes that has a completely silent, fan-less design, looks like a piece of high end AV gear and is ISF approved. For those of you unfamiliar with the MCE platform you can check out this interactive demo. I have been living a dual tuner MCE box since October of last year and it has really transformed the way my family uses media in our home.

At first glance it looks like a Windows MCE based Media Server will replace system integration with a single box. Well… Yes and No. Media Centers can perform a lot of the functions that we currently spend a lot of time designing and installing but they still need to be installed and extended into the rest of the home system. Since Media Centers are here to stay the real question we need to as is how are we as an industry going to extend, enhance and leverage this new platform? I think the answer is the same way we have been doing it for more than a decade, integration.

I see a huge potential for integrating Media Centers with the rest of a whole house system. The simple addition of a Media Center box can replace many other stand alone boxes with redundant features and greatly reduce the installation complexity and price. However Microsoft MCE does not come with any type of third party integration platform. How would an installation company integrate a MCE box with say a Crestron type of touch screen system? I guess one answer could be IR but at that point the Crestron is just a sophisticated remote without any two way interaction. For complete integration we would need to leverage the entire MCE functionality so a Crestron type system could interact with a MCE box beyond what is offered by the MCE UI.

To accomplish this type of MCE integration D-Tools has created the Media Center Integration Toolset (MCIT). MCIT is a server application that resides on the Media Center PC and exposes both control capabilities and access to Media Center’s library of digital media content through a XML API. Communication occurs over a TCP socket which may be opened and closed per command or maintained consistently for receipt of state events as they occur within Media Center.

MCIT goes way beyond simple button emulation and system navigation. MCIT can browse and search media libraries stored on the MCE including album art. Browse and select recorded TV content. Browse, select and push digital photos stored on the MCE. Keep track of the current state of the MCE and many more useful and needed functions. All of this is done in a text based, XML interface.

MCIT is in advanced beta with a final release in the fall. We are looking for some forward thinking system integrators with Crestron or other control system experience to help us test this software. If you are interested please sign up on the D-Tools user forum under the Meda Center Integration Tool Set topic and I will get you the latest software plus all the documentation.