What Open Can Look Like

For the record, I really do think that open systems are better than closed ones. But not always. Sometimes, open systems turn into a complete mess.

I was thinking about this as we get into the holiday season, a time when lots of new consumer audio-visual electronics are purchased and make their ways into our homes. Last year I purchased what was recommended to me as a very good “home theater in a box,” i.e., a single-unit, multi-speaker system that serves as a central hub for audio from my cable box, Mac mini, Apple TV, Blu-Ray player, Wii console etc. Along with our television, it’s the principal interface for basically everything my family does in the living room.

Manual Transmission

Buying a receiver and a set of speakers bundled together in a box is not something that true audiophiles really do, so that makes this system something less than an expert’s product. Still, as I’ve discovered through use, it’s not for casual consumers, either. Mere mortals and the faint of heart will surely pale at the manual, which includes diagrams like this one:

In fact, the whole manual is rife with this kind of schematic nonsense. None of it does much to remedy the fact that what should be simple hookups — like connecting a television — in fact require a disheartening level of intricacy.

The most bewildering part to me though is not so much the complexity of hooking up hardware components to the receiver, but resolving the way audio works, which is the whole reason I bought it in the first place. Here’s just one of many completely incomprehensible tables that outline what ‘listening modes’ are available for various kinds of audio sources.

There are six pages of these tables in the manual, with hardly any attempt at explaining, in plain language, what any of it should mean to me.

Why is this manual so incomprehensible? Why is this system so difficult to use? The answer is not that this technology is inherently complicated or that the designers of this system are incompetent — or rather it’s not just for those reasons. The real reason is that the consumer audio-visual product space is in effect a platform composed of an unruly mess of standards with no rationalizing centrality.

In its entirety, the A/V platform may not be truly open (many of the standards used are at least partially closed), but the effect is the same: any manufacturer can create products that plug into any other system, including this one that I own. And so this system must support at least eight different kinds of cables and jacks, all communicating in an alphabet soup of protocols that are beyond the comprehension of consumers with better things to do with their time.

The market that results is a robust one, I suppose, as manufacturers seem to profit from it and most any new player can get into the game. But the net effect is that consumers must pay the price for an opaque ecosystem. We are the ones left to deal with a tangled mess of acronyms, wires and user interfaces that waste our time and energy. To me, that’s not so much an example of openness winning as everyone losing.