And another thing 60

by Jon Honeyball

Jon Honeyball sees new development opportunities in SMartTV at 4K resolution.

HardCopy Issue: 60 | Published: May 1, 2013

Deciding which conferences to attend is a tough decision. What will I get out of it? Will I be party to some inner special information not handed out to mere mortals? Do I really want to go back to Las Vegas for a third time this year? And spend a weekend away to get the cheaper flights that happen if your trip spans a Saturday night? What do you do when you have tried all the restaurants in the hotel over the past few years? Twice?

It’s a tough one. Going to conferences used to be the best way to get the latest information, the freshest code and developer tools, and to mingle with other like-minded lunatics from around the globe. They also used to be inspirational – I still treasure the memory of the first morning at the Microsoft PDC in 1992 when David Cutler came on stage and said, with reference to Windows NT, “This is a proper operating system.”

Today, it’s different. I hear that this summer’s WWDC from Apple sold out in two minutes. Or was it 90 seconds? That’s for 5,000 people going to San Francisco. There’s TechEd, both in Europe and USA, and the Build conference. And what about MMS, which has just taken place?

To be honest, I have given up on all of these. Lots of travel, rushing around, jet lag, tiredness, and today you can watch the whole thing streamed over the InterWeb in the comfort of your own sofa sat at home. Microsoft puts everything out to all developers on its various excellent developer programmes. Apple does the same for its development community. Microsoft doesn’t even do a decent attendee party any more, it seems.

History lessons

The Editor reminded me that this is the 30th birthday for our hosts, Grey Matter. I leant back in my chair, and tried to remember how I used to program 30 years ago. Back then, I had access to a large collection of Prime mainframes at university which were fun to hack.

Microsoft Visual Basic boxshot

My first really useful programming happened during my work placement year where I was exposed to HP’s wonderful 85 desktop computer/GPIB controller, and its big brother the 9816. HP Basic was a thing to behold, and seriously good work was done on those devices.

I was never really a BBC Micro chap – they passed me by. But I did get into PCs and Windows 2 and I remember the painful hours spent trying to learn the seminal Petzold book Programming Windows. Back then you had to write you own Make files, and everything was run from the command prompt. The Microsoft C compiler cost some £500 and the Windows 2.1 SDK was another £600 or so, if my fading memory is correct.

The move to the on-screen programmable languages was a massive revolution. Borland’s ObjectVision, Microsoft’s Visual Basic and VBA changed the planet for small and medium sized in-house business development.

Then came the Web, and everything went to Hell in a handcart. I still rue the fact that modern development tools cannot match the RAD capabilities and the ease of entry that we had back in VB3 or VB4. For sure, they are vastly more sophisticated today, with capabilities which would have seemed miraculous back then. But back then, there was a raging fire of small app development inside forward-thinking companies.

Today, that isn’t happening, and this plays a significant part in the downturn of interest in new platforms. At least with Mac OSX, I can use Automator to get simple things done easily. Of course, Windows has Powershell, but where is the RAD environment for Powershell in every instance of Windows 7 and 8? Have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater and returned to an era where only the best of the best can play? I wonder whether this really is progress.

But there are two shows which are still worth attending if you want to maintain a good finger on the pulse of the home and professional user communities; if you have any interest in broadcast media and IT. That’s CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in January, and NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) in April. The former is an orgy of everything to do with home electronics. The latter is everything to do with broadcast electronics, engineering, video, film, TV, media and so forth. Wandering around these events, you get a very strong idea of where the market is going in the home, media and entertainment spaces. (And the parties can be epic.)


Getting Smart

This year, both CES and NAB have taught me that we are on the cusp of a big sea change, and it revolves around SmartTV. The arrival of 4K resolution televisions for the home has been badly explained, and reported even worse. No, the world is not going to switch to broadcasting and distributing 4K material anytime soon, even though the professional side has switched to it en masse. The issue is one of data size, distribution, and the desire (and financial need) to keep something special for the cinema.

Yes, some companies like Sony are proposing to stream 4K material to the home, but this is not going to be mainstream any time soon. There might well be 4K support in the new PlayStation, but that’s their own ecosystem.

No, the reason why 4K is fascinating is because it allows us to split the market. For the last umpteen years, we have watched TV material at full screen. (For the purposes of this argument, I use the term ‘TV material’ to include DVD, Blu-ray and everything shown on a ‘TV’.)

This is about to change. Do the maths in your head. If you have a 4K panel, you need to upscale an HD/BD image (as in High Definition/Blu-ray Disk) to fill the full screen. What happens if you don’t do the upscale? The image sits in the middle of the screen, surrounded by a large black border.

Now imagine that black border being filled with content – applets, video streams, Web content. Stuff which is in sync with the broadcast channel. A baby camera feed from upstairs. Status info about how your dinner is cooking. A twitter-esque discussion with your mates about how awful this new episode of Top Gear really is. Or a video hook-up between you and family members who are away from home. The possibilities are endless.

This is why we need 4K in the home, to bring about this fundamental change in the way we consume media on our large TV panels in the family space. It’s not just consumption, its interaction. It’s voice control, gesture, touch on a tablet, with the TV doing clever things like face recognition and positional analysis.

Now some people think that all of this will be built into their next Xbox, and maybe it will. But what happens when you want to watch a movie from Sky? Or something from a different BD player? Or some other feed? Any attempt to lock us into one proprietary box isn’t going to work, because we have multiples of these things. And we are frankly tired of switching between HDMI inputs in a desperate attempt to find what we were looking for.

No, it’s time to move the integration up a layer. I see that my Sky box has an API which can be controlled by an applet running on my iPhone. It can show everything that’s available on the Sky box, including what’s been recorded. This API will be open to the next layer of the onion, and people who want to play in the SmartTV world will need to ensure their boxes are open to external API connection.

This is not going to be an overnight change, but mark my words: it is going to come. It’s high time the TV took its place at the centre of the home entertainment experience, and also played its part in the integrated home space too. If I was an astute developer, I would be looking at the biggest players in the SmartTV space and wondering how I could ensure my services/capabilities were available on that platform.

Part of the fragmentation of the device space, away from a bangers-and-mash world of Windows desktop and mobile phone, is that we are going to be looking at a continuum of devices, from the largest panels down to the smallest devices that sit on your wrist or even work without display, sitting in a coat pocket. These are new undiscovered countries, but there is one thing that you can guarantee: no-one is going to succeed by bringing a fixed function, closed device to the market. That is how things used to be, and not how things will be. So it’s time to look to see all the places you can sit on that continuum, and don’t sit in the comfortable history that says “TV is for watching Teletubbies.” This market is going to move, and move fast.