The Network is the Home

In the late 1980’s, Scott McNealy– cofounder of Sun Microsystems– infamously proclaimed that the “Network is the Computer.”
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Why Today’s Homes Need at Least an Eight-Port Switch Behind Every TV

In the late 1980’s, Scott McNealy– cofounder of Sun Microsystems– infamously proclaimed that the “Network is the Computer.” The implication of this phrase was that the collection of intelligent devices attached to a corporate network would always be more powerful than any single computer. Twenty years later, a similar phrase could be used for the home. The home is no longer a collection of individual, electronic boxes that serve a single function–such as watching television. Almost every new electronic device entering the residential audio-video space has become a networked device–today it would be accurate to state that the “Network is the Home.”

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Gordon van Zuiden (gordon@cybermanor.com) is president of cyberManor in Los Gatos, California.

Almost eight years ago, I wrote about the emergence of networking AV and data systems products for the home in a column titled, “In Search of Data Ports” (RS, September 2003). At that time, we were just beginning to see the emergence of a few products that could be connected to a home network–some leading-edge receivers, media centers, and set-top boxes. In contrast, today you need at least an eight-port switch behind almost every TV in the home that is used for more than just casual viewing (i.e. the kitchen or master bath TV) to support the plethora of products and services that leverage the home networked devices and high-speed internet connection gateway. Let’s take a closer look at the electronic products that are connecting to all of those network ports behind the TV.

The AV Receiver
No longer reserved for only the high end of a manufacturer’s product line–almost all new receivers add a network port to their box. These network ports are used for a wide variety of purposes. New receivers can now connect to the internet to stream from a variety of internet audio services, such as Pandora or Rhapsody, as well as video services like those offered by Netflix and YouTube. Increasingly, universal remote controllers now communicate over a network connection to the receiver (instead of RS232) to initiate and receive command information. These network ports also are used to communicate between the receiver and its manufacturer for firmware updates and remote troubleshooting capabilities. Most recently, incorporating Apple’s new Airplay feature allows these receivers to stream audio content from iTunes collections on the home network directly to their receiver.

Television Set
The smart TV is here. Almost all of the new larger TVs (40 inches and above) have a network port on the back. These new internet-connected TVs now support dozens of different entertainment and informational widgets/apps. Netflix, Pandora, weather, and traffic reports are just a few of these networked-based services enabled by this new functionality–and we can expect a steady stream of new applications to be added to these TVs over time. One application that is uniquely suited for the large-screen TV experience is Skype–simply add a small camera and microphone to the smart TV, and you’ve created a very engaging and inexpensive videoconferencing experience.

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For any room that is used for more than just casual viewing, every TV must be equipped with enough switches to support the plethora of products and services that leverage the home networked devices and high speed internet connection gateway.

Service Provider Set-Top Boxes
Most all set-top boxes have now added a network connection to complement the traditional phone port on these units. Electronic program guide information streams in via this internet connection, and iPad and Android-based platforms can control these set-top boxes across a wireless network connection in the home. Set-tops, like those from TiVo, also allow content to be shared on the home network across networked TiVo boxes. TiVo also supports the movement of its recorded content from its own hard drive to any fixed or mobile hard drive around the home–the perfect solution for the clients that want to take their TiVo recording of 60 Minutes and move it to their laptop for viewing on their next plane flight.

Media Clients
Inexpensive products from Apple, Roku, Google, and Boxee (to name just a handful) provide a full range of “over-the-top” entertainment services to the television. These are all the potential service provider “cord killing” boxes that offer an increasingly wide range of movie, TV, and audio experiences that all stream from the home’s broadband internet connection. The breadth of these offerings have become so wide that the need for cable or satellite subscriptions in the coming years will diminish, as will the need for discbased players (either audio or video).

Universal Remote Controllers
The base stations of universal remote controllers are now connected to the home network and the internet. With so many AV devices having a network connection, it has become the preferred method of control communications (vs. RS232 and certainly IR). Placing a network port on these base stations allows a wide range of handheld devices to become universal remote controllers, which can engage with the networked, connected AV equipment over the home’s wireless 802.11b/g/n connections. Think of the Apple iPhone or iPad now as universal remote controllers–and many of the newly released Android tablets.

Game Boxes
Xbox, Wii, and many other gaming platforms have networking ports to enable multi-player gaming with other players on the Internet. Network ports also enable these boxes to add many of the additional feature sets already noted–such as movie and audio streaming. In the case of the Microsoft Xbox, you add their Kinect camera platform to this gaming station and have a video teleconferencing solution that can follow you around the room as you talk.

Movie Players
To get the highest quality movie experience (1080p) and the greatest range of new movie titles, you still need to install a Blu-ray player. Almost all of these now require a network connection to enable the internet-based audio and video streaming services previously discussed and to insure that they are upgraded with the latest firmware to allow newer movies to playback properly. Many new movies are encrypted in such a way that some cannot be played back via older Blu-rayplayers (until upgraded).

And Everything Else
Wireless access points, audio amps (think Sonos or Control4), and line conditioner/UPS devices are more examples of network-based products that increasingly find a home in our client’s AV cabinets. Enhancing the home’s wireless cloud, moving music from room to room, or intelligently turning off unused electronic devices–all of these products leverage the home network and the internet to enhance the home entertainment experience.

In Sum
It is clear that the professionally installed home entertainment system has become an intricate system of networked devices. As ESCs, we must be prepared to install these larger switches behind many of our client’s TVs and to train our staff to leverage network connections to enable the latest generation of entertainment and control solutions for our clients’ homes.

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