Computer’s as appliances..?

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With all the news about Sony clogging up the airwaves (can you say that it internet parlance? how about blogwaves?, interwaves? webwaves? whatever). Anyway Sony – all the bad press Sony has been getting recently has made me think about another one of Sony’s cash cows – home appliances; specifically TV’s, VCR’s & DVD players.

I have recently bought all three of these appliances, and I can tell you, all the talk that computers (especially Apple’s) are nearing the nirvana of an appliance are way off the mark, in fact completely missing the mark. It is in fact, the other way around.

I don’t know about your experiences, but as far as I was concerned, you could buy a TV in 1995, turn it on, watch it, switch it off thousands of times over the years without a hitch. Then buy a brand new VCR or a DVD player a decade later, plug it in and guess what? with minimal configuration it would work. Very Apple like, everybody’s happy.

Then came the problem, (in my experience anyway), digital TV. I’m talking from a UK perspective here.

About a year ago I bought a Sony DVD player, my first DVD player (I know I’m late to the game, but I don’t watch a lot of TV). I hooked it up to my Tatung TV (about 10 years old), this TV also had a Samsung VCR (about 5 years old), and it did work fine. Watching TV, VCR’s or DVD’s was easy, recording TV as easy as it ever was.

Then, unfortunately the TV died, and by coincidence so did the VCR (however the VCR was never the same after having food pushed into it – I have a child under 2 you understand).
So I was in the market for a new TV & DVD player. I decided (with hindsight a mistake) to go all-Sony. After all I had a Sony 12″ TV from my university years that still worked fine, so my decision was made. It was made at a great price as well, a new VCR & 28″ Sony TV (with Freeview) for £500.

After the inevitable purchase of a new aerial to get Freeview, I settled down with the new set-up, happy that I was cutting-edge (well as sharp as you can be for £500).
Then almost straight away things started to go wrong. For some reason the DVD player stopped working. Usually opening and closing the DVD drawer would switch the TV to the DVD channel (again, very nice, very Apple). For some reason this no longer happened. DVD’s played (I could see and hear the actual DVD spinning up and down & counting), but no picture.

Then I realised that the VCR wasn’t recording. At least wasn’t recording the digital channels. Analogue channels recorded fine. It would record the digital channels, as long as you didn’t change channel, or turn the TV off, or turn the sound down (now I ask, what is the point of that?).

So I look round the back of the TV at the cables. This originally had been reasonably straight forward when first setting up the TV. It took a while, but following the manuals I had it hooked up as they specified. However, it was a cable mess. No longer is there just a couple of cables going from analogue, through the VCR to the TV, you now have almost a dozen cables, all going in different directions, god knows what any of them do.

So I check all the cables to see whether anything has popped out, but this in itself is difficult. The icons & writing on the back of the TV, telling you what each port is for are black, embossed onto a black background. Impossible to see, even in daylight without a torch. There are 3 different manuals, one for VCR, DVD & TV. This you would expect if they were all from different suppliers, but these all all Sony products. These products can be used with other products, so you do need separate manuals, but you would expect the manuals to look the same, be structured the same, and use the same names for each port – they do not, so you have to always translate between them.

After a lot of trial and error, I realise that the Sony scart cable supplied with the DVD is faulty, so I purchase the a new & better one, from a local independent electrical supplier. That’s the DVD sorted, but I find out that recording digital channels is purposely disabled in this way. Not taking no for an answer, I resort looking on the internet. There is a work around, but here it is:

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Can you believe this? I’m still not sure this will work (I need to put aside an entire evening to find out, and guess what? I have slightly more important things to do with my time than translate the above diagram into reality).

All this reminds me of the original iMac campaign. One of the selling points of the iMac was it’s ease of setting up to the internet, and its lack of cables. One of the TV ads that was used shows this perfectly:

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That PC is exactly what my TV, VCR & DVD set-up looks like.

Imagine if the above iMac was translated into an Apple branded TV/VCR/DVD…

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The idea that computers need to become like appliances is misguided. Today’s appliances are just as complicated to set up as a Windows PC, but there’s an opportunity here for Apple. I really wish that Apple would enter the home appliance market because if they followed the same ease of use in both hardware & software that they do with the iPod & Mac, they would wipe the floor with companies such as Sony, and change the face of home technology for ever.

Sony are a huge company, it should be perfectly possible with today’s technology, to have 3 appliances, a TV, DVD player & VCR, and have 1 power cable, 1 cable going from the wall to the TV and the 2 more cables from the TV to the DVD & VCR. Apple does exactly this with all their technology why cannot everybody else? Why does no other company get this simple premise?

It’d be nice as well if the software they used to drive the settings for these 3 appliances was Apple-like as well, but I do not believe it is possible to do this outside Apple’s campus.

The interfaces used to drive these 3 devices are all different, break just about every GUI guideline there is, you have to learn different skills for each one, etc, etc, etc. It’s like Apple Human Interface Department never existed.

Is Front Row and the new iMac a move in this direction? Maybe. Just think for a moment about these words, iMac, Powermac, Xserve. Now think of the differences between them. Now think about iPod, powerPod & xPod, a pod for the consumer, professional and administrator?

I for one would put my Sony products on eBay, and buy the Apple equivalents in a heartbeat.

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