Consumer electronics gets connected

Consumer electronics devices may start out unconnected, but they soon link up.

In my last column I discussed various forms of convergence, with respect to devices and gadgets and the services we use to access them. This time I am looking at another word beginning with 'c': connectable. We have been used to connecting some devices to a network for a couple of decades now. The obvious examples are mobile phones, which connect to the cellular network, and personal computers, which connect to Ethernet and Wi-Fi networks in order both to reach each other, and to access shared resources such as printers and the Internet. So, from the telecommunications and computing areas this kind of connectedness is very familiar. The same is not so true in the rest of consumer electronics - at least in the eyes of the average user.

Sure, the television in the home has always been connected to the broadcast networks to receive content, but most users don't think of it as a connection that is made, and certainly not before the advent of pay-per-view satellite and cable offerings where they explicitly paid to be connected. It just seemed like a box that they switched on and watched. These days, there is a more apparent connection from the user's point of view. Modern TVs and their set-top box relatives often take the user through a mysterious sequence of downloading updates. In other words, the TV now updates its firmware or software in much the same way as a PC does.

The earliest games consoles were also standalone, first with inbuilt games and then later with cartridge-style expansion options. More recently, these too have become networked. This is true not only of the portable handheld gaming devices but also those designed for use in the home.

Downloading flexibility

Portable media players are another category of consumer electronics that were, in their earliest incarnations, unconnected devices. They would typically be loaded with content using a PC and then simply play it back while the user was on the move. Their first step to connectability was to link them to other audio-visual equipment in the home, extending playback via hi-fi systems for audio and through other screens for video.

It wasn't long before this connectivity extended to the idea of sharing content with other media player users, whether just playlists and samples (for digital rights-management reasons) or whole media files. Now a number of popular portable media players connect directly to the Internet to allow the immediate download of new media (songs, podcasts, video and so on) without recourse to the PC. As Wi-Fi and other technologies have enabled greater download speeds, the experience of adding new content to a portable device in this way has improved.

There is one more consumer electronics class of device I want to cover here: the digital camera. A number of these devices now include Wi-Fi as a connectable networking feature. This allows instant photo-sharing, either directly or via websites. This is still relatively new, but a sign that the trend towards being connectable is continuing. In fact, it is hardly possible to think of any type of consumer electronics gadget that wouldn't offer some user benefits from being connectable in some sense.

So what of the future? While cloud computing and network-based services offer advantages in many situations, utilising the ever-increasing capabilities of the terminal devices is also very important. At the moment, when designers develop new devices or related services, the decisions they make determine, in advance, what capabilities are used. These decisions, about issues such as where data will be stored or how it should be processed, are hard-coded into the device.

In some situations, the designer may have made the best decision for the user, but this isn't always the case. The average user probably doesn't want to care about this, but there is another option. In the future, it would be best if the device could take account of a user's situation and intentions - in other words their context - when selecting the best options for them. Delaying such decisions until the point of use, rather than making them in advance, makes it possible to offer a better experience for the user. This move from static decisions to more dynamic behaviour could really enhance the overall user experience and exploit both the excellent capabilities of future devices and of the networks to which they connect.

We know that an increasing variety of network technologies will be available in future with which devices can connect. We know that most devices will have a choice of networks too, given the tiny percentage of silicon needed to support the various options. And we know that there will be all sorts of capabilities available in the cloud for devices and their users to take advantage of. Let's hope that the dynamism that I have described here helps to simplify the task of network choice for the user!

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