I’ve been trying to think if there’s ever been a consumer experience that’s quite as much of a mess as watching video at home is today. What was once so simple now seems inordinately, hopelessly complex. The old paradigm of simply buying a television set, attaching an antenna or a coaxial cable and turning it on seems like a ritual from a lost epoch, something far less evolved humans settled for in order to enjoy scraps of primitive entertainment. In these more sophisticated, digitally-enhanced times, the living room has become a mess.
Now, watching television requires a complex orchestration of sources, devices, meta-systems, cables, asset management and general confusion. Currently in my living room, I have a veritable cat’s cradle of a setup, including two DVD players, a home theater system, a secondary speaker system, an Apple TV, a MacBook, and a putative ‘universal remote’ that nevertheless fails to obviate the many additional remote controls that linger on the coffee table. (Yes, there’s a lot of redundancy there, but sadly there’s some kind of resigned argument for all of it.).
And that’s just the hardware. We recently canceled our cable television service which in theory should have moderately simplified our video selection. However, it’s still left to us to manage iTunes movie rentals (which are time-limited), iTunes TV show purchases (which are not time-limited but which must be preserved on hard drives somewhere), two Netflix queues, various streaming video setups, Hulu queues and any additional video we might have acquired from, ahem, anonymous sources. Needless to say, each one of these content types entails an entirely different user interface, none of them consistent with one another, and nearly all of them requiring some combination of remote control chording and technical acrobatics in order to actually use. The worst indictment, of course, is that I’m the only member of my household who knows how to use the system, and I can barely explain it to anyone else.
It’s tempting to say that at the heart of this problem is a lack of good design, or a surfeit of bad design. To be sure, each component of my system represents the work product of a small cadre of design talent, some of it better than others. But the truth, I think, is that there’s too much design going on here, and not enough coordination to match it — there’s not enough business innovation at work in the living room.
The digital revolution has brought us choice, but it clearly has done almost nothing to help us with the act of making sense of those choices. Somewhere along the way, manufacturers, software publishers, content creators, licensors, everyone began to work on the assumption that content consumers are just as happy to be managers of content, that along with the freedom of digital entertainment, we want to also keep track of everything and be responsible for making everything work together. That just seems completely wrong to me.
Down to Business
The crazy thing is that I’d bet that right now, today, we have the right technology smarts and certainly the right design smarts to solve this problem. But the missing leg of the stool, a rational, user-focused business model, is still sorely missing. This is the free market at play, industrial competition in full effect: every device manufacturer, content creator and software publisher is competing to create the most commercially competitive subset of video entertainment or peripheral, but doing so in nearly complete isolation from one another.
Fundamentally, they’re all incapable of getting on the same page and creating a coherent, consistent, transparent user experience for the teeming masses. In this current state of continual volatility in the business models driving home entertainment, there are so many market-driven, irreconcilable differences between all of the constituent parts of a home theater setup that a resolution to the mess seems discouragingly unobtainable. What’s needed is a consortium or a standards movement or an open source project, but one that spans across the many industries and players that are involved, and that can somehow resolve some of the biggest intellectual property challenges facing media today. Somehow. Design has done what it can for the time being; to get over this hump, it’s a business problem. And, as with almost all unresolved business problems, it’s the end users who suffer.