Roughly 103 weeks ago, I was quoted in the Chicago Tribune that 2007 would be the year of the wireless for HDMI dongle, an external adapter allowing consumers to connect their video sources to their displays sans wires. I further predicted that 2008 would see such technology embedded inside televisions.
I took a page out of Henny Youngman's book ("When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading") by eschewing predictions during CES 2008. But, with apologies to Keith Olbermann, you can't stop me, you can only hope to contain me. Thus, I'm back with a few predictions for the year in tech, 2009. The good news is, I can't possibly do any worse than these folks did in 2008.
Let's start with a topic near and dear to my heart, the wireless transmission of high definition television. For the purposes of this post, we'll refer to the concept as "wireless high-def" so as not to infringe upon or provide undue props to any particular company, organization, or alliance. To further clarify, we're talking about delivering high-def consumer content from a source to a sink, such as a digital set-top box to a flat panel TV; we're not talking about shipping video around a newsroom, delivering video over the Internet, or doing live remotes. Think consumer homes, living rooms, and apple pie.
Five score and three weeks ago, we thought we had it nailed at my former company, Tzero Technologies. We believed that we'd created the first viable solution for cutting the cord on the set-top box, enabling the creation of an entire class of devices and accessories freed from the tether of the audio/video cable. Two years on, I still believe that what we'd created then was absolutely revolutionary.
Unfortunately, revolutionary doesn't always translate into sales success. I'm not picking on Tzero, nor am I picking on Pulse~LINK, Amimon, Radiospire, SiBEAM (all of whose technologies I touched on during last year's CES) or any of the other players trying to make a go of it in this field; they (and others) have their heads down, trying to figure out how to deliver solutions that the market wants.
If this were easy, my 2007 predictions would've held true.
But it isn't easy. Wi-Fi wasn't easy in the early days, when I spent a couple hundred bucks for an access point and another hundred bucks for an 802.11b card, only to learn that $300+ bought me a solution dramatically less reliable and much slower than the 100-foot Ethernet cable I'd kept coiled under the desk. Is Wi-Fi easy now? Well, kind of, depending on what you want out of your Wi-Fi. If you want reasonably reliable data transmission at a bit-error rate which varies based on all kinds of external forces, and don't necessarily need to stream high bitrate, high quality, delay-sensitive traffic (and if you're a vendor who believes you can successfully perform that streaming, I'm happy to field test your gear in my home, where I can see as many as two dozen Wi-Fi access points at any given time), yeah, Wi-Fi is easy.
Plus, not only is Wi-Fi easy, it's becoming more and more ubiquitous. I wouldn't say we've reached the era of Wi-Fi as utility; however, as consumers purchase more connected devices, Wi-Fi has become the lowest common denominator for high-speed connectivity. 3G radios are still too expensive compared to Wi-Fi, plus 3G requires a service provider. Wi-Fi is cheap and cheerful, providing the best bang for the buck in terms of bitrate, size, power consumption, and cost.
But, just as Rome wasn't built in a day, neither was Wi-Fi. The first 802.11b products hit the market in early 2000, after years of the initial 1 and 2 mb/s 802.11 technology; in the nearly nine years since, we've seen advances in throughput (11b-->11g-->11n); advances in security (WEP-->WPA-->WPA2); advances in security setup (curse-->pray-->WPS); advances (?) in messaging (pre-11n, draft 11n, 2.0 but not finished 11n, 11n--we mean it this time); and major reductions in power consumption, package size, and cost.
All of which has taken nine years to play out. Wireless high-def might only be a couple years old, but companies have been trying to deliver consumer wireless TV streaming for years, well pre-dating high-def. Magis Networks closed its doors five years ago, so one can comfortably say that the clock has been running since well before that time. The shift from standard definition to high definition has obviously added dramatically to the complexity of the solution, too.
Where am I going with this, you ask?
Where I'm going is that 2009 isn't going to be the year of the dongle, or of the embedded wireless HDTV--not in the general consumer space, at least. Two major stumbling blocks to success currently exist, neither of which will be resolved in time for the 2009 holiday selling season.
First, for wireless high-def, there are lots of answers, but not really a problem. Sure, I didn't know that I needed Wi-Fi back when I was still tethered to an Ethernet cable, but I'd be hard-pressed to give it up now. For most consumer devices, mobility and flexibility go hand-in-hand. Case in point--I don't believe it would've been possible for laptops to outsell desktops last quarter without embedded Wi-Fi in pretty much every system sold. The portability of a laptop without built-in wireless networking provides limited upside in most consumers' homes. With Wi-Fi built in, consumers are freed from the tether a desktop PC requires, providing considerably more flexibility in just about every aspect of computing.
However, this really doesn't translate into the TV space. How often do you move your TV around? Every few years? Never? Even in rooms other than the living room or main television viewing room, it's doubtful that a TV is moved more than once a year, tops. So, nope, not a problem. What about situations where the connection coming into the house (from the cable, satellite, or IPTV provider) is on the other side of the room from where you want to place the TV. Ah-hah!
Not so much. Yes, this is absolutely a great application of wireless high-def technology. But there's one more issue, which takes me to huge stumbling block number two.
At CES 2007, vendors were quoting prices on products in the $500-$1000 range for a pair of wireless high-def devices (transmitter and receiver). At the time, that really wasn't a huge delta from a high-quality 5-10 meter HDMI cable, which would've run you $200-$300 or more, if you could even find one. Unfortunately, HDMI cable prices have absolutely gone through the floor over the last two years. Right now, a search on 10 meter HDMI cables on Amazon.com delivers a list where the top six results come in at prices ranging from $17 to $58. A search on Amazon.com for the Belkin FlyWire (the only consumer wireless high-def product I'm currently aware of that's theoretically available for pre-order in the U.S. market) delivers a single result, at $1499.
See anything wrong with that math?
Two years ago, the math wasn't quite as disturbing. All the hot new TVs introduced at CES 2007 had price tags that made a $500-$1000 wireless adapter look pricey, but not ridiculous. Then the bottom dropped out of the television market. In a world where I can buy a bundle of two, count 'em two 42" Sharp 1080p LCD panels from Costco.com for $1499, I'm pretty unlikely to spend that same amount of money on a wireless high-def adapter.
To be sure, vendors are still making announcements. In November, Sony announced a 40" TV with embedded wireless technology, retailing for a cool $5,000. At less than 1 cm thick, yes, I want one.
But not for five grand.
Don't get me wrong. I absolutely believe that at some point, we're going to see TVs with embedded wireless high-def at a price consumers are willing to swallow. A 100% increase in the price of the TV to add wireless? Deal-breaker. A 10% increase in the price of the TV to add wireless? Deal-maker, maybe. The challenge is, if we look at the math of a $1,000 television versus a $1,100 wireless high-def television, that gives us $100 of retail price to play with, or about $30 on the bill of materials (BOM) itself. I find it highly unlikely that any of the wireless high-def vendors will be able to deliver in time for the 2009 holiday selling season a fully functional module at $30 per side. I would love to be wrong about this, but I don't think I will be.
I'll be meeting with most of the players in wireless high-def next week at CES. I look forward to seeing and hearing what's new in terms of why each vendor's solution is better than everyone else's--compressed versus uncompressed, spectrum position, bandwidth used, yadda, yadda, yadda. But, at the end of the day, I'm pretty certain I know most of the technical arguments; in my mind, the only thing that's going to make wireless high-def as easy as Wi-Fi is price. When Joe Six-Pack can walk into his retailer and purchase a wireless high-def TV without having to worry about gigahertz and compression arguments and 48-bit color support, that's when somebody will be able to say they've won the wireless high-def war. With leading analysts like DisplaySearch predicting that year-over-year LCD revenue will drop for the first time ever next year, the need is greater than ever for vendors to differentiate. A high-quality, well-priced wireless high-def option would make a heck of a differentiator. Plus, with the extra-long TV-selling season next year (extending a month beyond the Super Bowl, thanks to the Vancouver Olympics, which run from February 12-28, 2010), vendors should be even further motivated.
Let's face it--no one has yet made a business out of wireless high-def. Lots of money has been invested in some extremely innovative companies, all of whom have shown awesome demos over the past couple of years. I'm not ready to write off any of the companies or their technology approaches, nor am I prepared to say that the winner will be someone just starting out in a garage who hasn't taken her first penny in funding yet. But, what I will say is that without a high-quality, well-priced wireless high-def option that just works, Amazon.com is going to keep selling a lot of HDMI cables.
I'll be back on January 2nd with my 2009 Tech Prediction #2--the Atom Avalanche. Until then, safe travels, and Happy New Year!