VIA International: Thoughts to consider along the WAY.

Last week the big news in the custom home technology industry was the merger of six companies to form VIA International. While this type of merger is common in other industries as well as the manufacturing arm of the custom electronics industry, it has not been successfully completed at this level on the installation side.

Disclosure: I worked for one of the merged companies (Paragon Technology Group) from 2005-2009 but have not been involved in the merger or discussed it with any employees.

The most common question out there right now is “why would they want to do that?” Of course all the press releases mention increased levels of customer service and consistency of offerings for clients with multiple homes in various geographic markets. While this is true to a degree, let’s also consider that the companies are no longer giving money to another integration company when a client buys or builds a home in another market. They are also no longer put in a position of charging a premium to assemble and deploy a “travel team.” Bottom line: customer retention with decreased cost.

What are the other benefits not being discussed? Purchasing power, custom product lines, shared expenses and resources, and geographic diversification.

Five of the six companies are members of the HTSA buying group. By default, I assume the sixth company is now a member. Now that the companies within VIA are a single entity, their membership dues are decreased and their benefits no doubt increase as they have more purchasing power within the group than they did previously as individuals.

This purchasing power can extend to other costs of business: group health insurance, fleet vehicle purchases, phone services…all manner of goods or services.

Many larger retailers carry product model numbers not available at other stores or on-line. Occasionally these models have different features (one less HDMI port) than their mainstream counterparts but sometimes they are the exact same. Private models are more difficult for consumers to price shop and, in VIA’s case, would bring a sense of exclusivity that appeals to a certain clientele.

Shared expenses and resources would eliminate some of the redundancy and that six companies incur. Unfortunately, sometimes people are the redundancy but thanks to geographic diversity when things slow down in one market, people and resources can be allocated to a market that is experiencing a surge.

There are tremendous up-sides to a merger like this, and they are difficult to see at first. Many in the industry are focusing on the negatives right now. These are much easier to spot: company culture clashes, egos, valuations and accounting, human resource requirements. While Metcalfe’s law associates the value of a (telecommunications) network with the square of the number of connected users, some have created a corollary: that the complexity of anything increases with the square of the number of people involved. In the case of VIA, both will probably be proven.

Based on the articles/press releases I have read so far it looks like the partners have done a tremendous amount of work to mitigate the negative implications from a business standpoint; the personalities will have to sort themselves out.

Here are some links with the details as they are known:

Venture Beat

Residential Systems

Residential Systems #2

CE Pro

and of course VIA’s Website.

This will indeed be interesting to follow over the next few years as VIA International expands to the East Coast and then goes international.

Giving it all away

Ever notice how much you can get for free these days? Free music from countless online streaming sources, free cell phones, free security systems, free tv and video streaming, I’ve even seen free gas, car expenses and even free cars! What’s the catch?

The catch is usually one or a combination of the following: acceptance of a long term contract, giving up some of your personal information and habits for marketing purposes, or being exposed to targeted advertising. In considering these tactics from a business as well as personal perspective, I came across a startling discovery. We have been so overexposed to all these freebies that we don’t feel like we should pay for anything anymore. This goes beyond the sense of entitlement previous generations have accused us of, even beyond the socialist society others have, we have given up ourselves in pursuit of free stuff.

Conspiracy theorists rejoice, you are right! They are tracking our physical and online locations, our browsing as well as our purchase history, our wall posts and instant messages. We have given up all rights to our family photos and intellectual property. All for a free app, widget, or gizmo.

We have sold our virtual souls to the devil so that he can market to us more easily and take more from us. Since we are used to the freebies, we refuse to pay full price. This means that manufacturers can’t make a profit on the goods they are able to market to us so easily; then the government has to subsidize products so that the companies can stay in business. Think this is far fetched? In my industry one only has to look at how poorly Sony, Samsung, and Sharp are doing. The manufacturers of the best video displays can’t sell them at a profit! Airlines don’t make money on passengers and auto makers don’t make money on cars. Capitalism seems to be killing itself as the line between need and want blur.

Let me put it this way: you don’t need a new smartphone, you don’t need a bigger TV, you don’t need the latest video game. These are things you want and I am happy to sell them to you…for a profit.

Higher Than High Definition

We are entering in to yet another new development and standard in video display resolution technologies. Over the past twelve years in the industry, I have seen quite a few significant improvements in home entertainment video resolution and distribution technologies. We have run the gammut from standard definition at 480 interlaced horizontal lines to progressive display technologies. Then high definition started rolling out with first 720 and later 1080 lines of resolution. During this time aspect ratio also changed from the old “square” four by three (4:3) format to widescreen formats such as the currently popular 16:9.

Stereoscopic 3D has also had some new developments and continues to gain some market share. More on this below…

How many new TVs or video displays have you bought in the past 10 or 12 years? Were you an early adopter trying to have the latest and greatest or did you wait until format wars and were resolved and media was readily available? The increase in display resolution also made it possible to have larger TVs, did this drive your buying decision?

Many manufacturers are starting to produce products capable of the latest high definition resolution, 4K. When 720 and 1080 resolutions started rolling out, marketing departments turned these into buzz words equated with “must-have” features. I have been seeing this happening with 4K over the past year as well and it is just about to hit the mainstream. So what is 4K and what are the benefits?

In short, 4K represents four times the pixel resolution of 1080. While 1080 resolution at 16:9 aspect ratio is properly stated as 1920 by 1080, 4K is 3840 by 2160. Anyone catch what the marketing folks have done there? Look at those specs again.

The first part is obvious, they rounded up from 3840 to 4K. Look again. They went from talking about 1080 lines of horizontal resolution to 4000 lines of vertical resolution. There really are four times as many pixels, but rather than explaining the math, the marketing folks decided it was easier to compare horizontal to vertical!

Now before you rush out and start throwing around the latest buzzword in high resolution think about two things: size and source. The added pixels probably won’t make much of a difference to you on a 42″ or smaller TV. The full advantage of 4K is only realized when you are watching 4K source material. As Martyn Williams notes in a recent article on cio.com, a “key issue is the lack of a content delivery system.”

I’ve said it before in many different ways: it’s all about content; content is king. Right now there just isn’t the content available to justify upgrading just for the sake of bragging rights stemming from the latest buzzword.

What we are really waiting for with 4K is new high definition 3D content. Remember that regardless of the technology being used, 3D on your TV or projection screen is still stereoscopic. Since the resolution of 4K is truly twice the number of vertical and horizontal lines as 1080p, 3D displays will have 1080p available to the pictures presented to each eye.

Though I’m not a big fan of 3D right now and 4K doesn’t yet seem worth a new purchase, it is something exciting to look forward to.

Hate the Player, Don’t Hate the Game!

(This has NOTHING to do with a certain football game)

Ever since it became affordable for consumers to replicate media, the content creators have tried to inhibit the use of these replicating technologies. And yet they keep becoming more popular and evolving.

It was true when photocopying (and later digital scanners) became mainstream; authors, artists, publishers (and even the US Treasury) became worried.

It was true when audio cassette tapes became popular and recording artists and record labels worried about lost sales.

When video recording (VCRs and, later, DVRs) became popular it wasn’t just the creators and distributors of the content worrying about lost revenue. VCRs and DVRs gave people the ability to copy video content, time shift TV programming, and skip over content. Time shifting refers to the ability to record a (video or occasionally audio) program in order to view or listen to it at the consumer’s convenience. Time shifting and content skipping threatened a new group: advertisers.

Advertisers were threatened by content skipping obviously because people now had the ability to fast forward through the commercials. Time shifting posed a slightly different threat. Advertising and marketing companies spend a great deal of money studying demographics and targeting specific audiences. A very general example of this is that if you want to sell breakfast cereal to kids, advertise during Saturday morning cartoons. Not only are you targeting your demographic (kids) but you are also catching them at a time associated with your product. As VCRs and DVRs became popular, the audience not only became able to chose not to view the advertising, but even if it was viewed it was at a less appealing time (for the advertiser).

The latest technology to threaten these groups is content streaming, the ability to listen to or view programs via the Internet (a.k.a. the Cloud). Cloud based streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify, and Hulu and Netflix on the video side, offer the same content available on radio or TV with limited or no advertisements. The advantage of streaming is that now you don’t have to record or even store the content – it’s out there just waiting for you to find it!

A recent engadget article posed the question: “Is Streaming Undermining Family, Kids’ Program Disc Sales?” My co-workers and I had a very similar discussion at our recent staff meeting. We all know what direction this is going so lets figure out how to provide the best service to our clients and even make a little money at it. Migrating away from physical media as well as media servers like Kaleidescape impacts us as well – fewer pieces of equipment to sell and install. No wonder the “glory days” of the last decade were so good in our industry, I remember a proposal that had VHS players, DVD players, and a Kaleidescape system. These will all soon be replaced with a network switch! (Correction, naturally there was a full network in that proposal.)

Cloud based streaming content is the future. The lawyers, lobbyists, content distributors and many of the content creators are stuck in the last millennium. If there were a group of buggy whip lobbyists in the 1900s with any where near the strength the recording artists and the DVD Copy Control Association (DVD CCA) have today, the automobile would never have reached mass market. Much has been written recently (see this CEPro article)about how the DVD CCA is preventing storing/watching electronic copies of DVD content. We are back to the legal mandate that the disc must be present in the player.

Who cares? Pretty soon there won’t be a player, that’s the real game of innovation (innovators come up with alternative solutions) – don’t hate the game!

Motorola Mobility, Verizon Partner to Deliver Connected Home Services

The headline above belongs to an article on Computer Business Review’s site and has to be the most under reported story of the day. I happened to catch it on Custom Retailer.

Why is it such an important development? Because last month Google announced that it is buying Motorola Mobility (I’m calling it the MotorMob). Many of us thought that this would be Google’s serious entry into home automation. Well, Verizon has wanted to get into home automation for a while as well.

Of course, Comcast is trying this as well but the combination of Verizon and Google seems much stronger than Comcast on its own.

Thank goodness I don’t work in Verizon’s territory.

“Hey Mav, what’s the number of that truck driving school….?”

CEDIA the Nexus of Electronic Systems

The Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association (CEDIA) had it’s annual trade show Indianapolis last month. Rather than writing about the same new products as dozens of other attendees, I will share my perspectives on the experiences that the newest electronics and software provide.

One of the things about CEDIA Expo that keeps me coming back year after year is that it is my one chance to see some really great people that have become friends over the years – former co-workers, manufacturer’s reps, colleagues and competitors. Though I trade comments on various industry forum posts or social media sites with many within the CEDIA community on a regular basis, Expo takes these relationships beyond social and makes them personal. So, it is ironic that I also view such a social event with dread as I know that it will be five days of loneliness away from my family.

In years past you may have seen me taking a cell phone call in the quite corner of a cocktail party so I could say goodnight or sing lullabies to my son. This year was different. This year I had a Nexus S phone from Google. I’ve had Skype loaded on previous phones but due to processor limitations or lack of forward facing cameras, I have never been able to use mobile Skype for video calls. This year I was the guy seeing my son make goofy faces at me while I was saying goodnight! Even video calls between two mobile devices had acceptable quality, though I do recommend using the lower quality video setting when connecting via cellular networks to prevent the video from freezing. It’s not HD but it is nice to see the person on the other end of the “line”.

I have never been much of a collector of music. I love listening to music but have always been more of a radio listener than a purchaser of songs or albums. I like a variety of music but don’t necessarily want to collect thousands of titles, and I certainly don’t want to continually sync songs from my desktop to my laptop or mobile phone when I travel. Cloud based streaming was made for people like me and I love life in the cloud!

Streaming services like Pandora, Spotify, and Google Music are fantastic. Now when I am away from home, I can listen to anything I want. Music can be selected for me based on similar artists or genres, I can stream specific songs or artists, I can even create playlists in the cloud. With other services, I can even stream my hometown radio station. It’s easy, it’s mobile, and I don’t have to predict on Monday what I will want to listen to on Wednesday.

One of the features of the Nexus S phone that initially intrigued me was the incorporation of near field communications (NFC). When I got my Nexus a few months ago, there were no NFC nearby for me to test the functionality. However, while at CEDIA I found that Yale locks had a display at the Control4 booth demonstrating this cool technology. Unfortunately the man supervising the demo did not know how to configure the app to allow my phone to operate the lock, but it worked flawlessly with the phone they had previously configured. Even without configuring the app, it was cool to see that the lock and my phone recognized each other with the NFC on but there was no recognition with it off. Of course I also earned some bonus points because (other than the demo) it was the only phone anyone at the booth had seen with NFC capabilities.

Unfortunately this remains my only test of the NFC functions. I am looking forward to Google Wallet but for reasons that I cannot fathom, Google has only made Wallet available to Nexus S 4G versions of the phone. This excludes those of us on AT&T. AT&T doesn’t even recognize the existence of this model phone.

If it weren’t for the truly unlimited data plan I have been grandfathered into, I would switch carriers in a heart beat. With such large data plans available hat makes the unlimited data plan so important when there are such large data plans available? The ability to video call and stream music without searching for Wifi hotspots!

It’s all about the data people, and that cloud? Well it’s raining content…

*Portions of this blog were written using the WordPress for Android app.

i Android – a Window into my phones

I am rough on phones. About two years ago I bought a Windows phone. It did not survive the “left it on the roof of my car while driving” test. The amazing thing is that the protective silicone case kept the phone on the roof of my car for about two miles before it S slid off and was run over.
In desperate need of a replacement, I decided to try a friend’s iPhone 3G and became hooked on the apps (more later). Unfortunately, it did not pass the “dropped it face down in the parking lot” test.

I now have a Nexus S Android from Google and figured I would shed some insight into my experiences. Dilbert writer Scott Adams had some similar notes in a recent ZDNet article, though his Android related notes were directed towards an HTC product.

First of all, the Windows phone was great for what it was, my second phone capable of receiving email and syncing data. It was my first true smartphone. Back in 2009 I loved the hard button keyboard, and it’s ability to sync with Microsoft Exchange. My only issue was with Microsoft’s ActiveSync which was needed to sync with a local PC. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. My only initial negative about the phone itself is that the screen was small and the resolution wasn’t to great either. After a while, I came to appreciate the phone’s user replaceable battery as it became necessary to remove the battery every few days to reset the phone. Don’t get me wrong, I loved that phone and it served me well until that fateful day. That day when I discovered the iPhone.

My very first comment on the iPhone was that it was OK as a phone but it was the Apps that made it great! Mobile blogging, navigation, great display, and easy to use. The touchscreen took a little getting used to for keyboard entry but after a few days, it was second nature (and nowhere near the “fail” that Scott Adams gave it). One early disappointment was the lack of an Adobe Flash player but I got over it. I think I had to reset the phone once but otherwise never had a problem, as long as I kept it charged; the battery life was horrid. If I used it for any significant phone calls or Internet access, I was lucky if I made it half a day on a single charge. And then there is iTunes. How a company like Apple that has created so many wonderful user experiences and interfaces could think up the iTunes interface is beyond me. I think it’s a step up from ActiveSync but only because it attempts to do more, not because it succeeds.Still, other than the occasionally missed appointment or several duplicated contacts, the iPhone was awesome. I really couldn’t think of anything I wanted that it couldn’t do. Then, after several incidents where the rubber met the road, I was walking across the parking lot and the glass met the road.

I’ve been an AT&T customer for years, mainly because I am grandfathered onto their unlimited data plan. As I began my search for a new phone I decided that this was something I didn’t want to give up and that I would stick with AT&T. Unfortunately, the only Android phone that I really wanted was the Nexus S. It had the form factor I was looking for, the battery life was supposed to be good, and it had Google’s latest Android Gingerbread operating system. Unfortunately, my initial searches led me to believe that it wasn’t available for use on AT&T. BestBuy is apparently the only place you can buy the AT&T version. (Note to Google, Samsung, and BestBuy: you all need to market this phone better!)

My first experience with the phone was with Android Market as I downloaded Apps. All my old favorites were there, and even some new ones (including Google Music). The truly amazing thing is that I surfed and downloaded for hours and hardly made a dent in the battery charge graph. The Android user interface is just different enough that it took a little while to get the hang of but has enough similarities that it didn’t take long. As I plan on adding notes as I get more experience with the phone and with Android, I’ll list my other findings:

  • I initially wrote the “curved screen” off as marketing hype but after my first call, I had to admit it really is more comfortable to hold and talk on
  • The touchscreen actually seems a bit too sensitive and it is taking longer to using the onscreen keyboard
  • Apple puts the headphone jack where it belongs – at the top.
  •  Apple uses the headphone jack as a universal port that several third parties have used for credit card readers, IR remote control, and microphone input as well as headphone/line-level outputs. Hopefully this is or will be possible in future generations.
  • The Nexus uses a standard micro-USB connection. Now my phone and Bluetooth headset use the same charger!
  • I’m not sure if my Plantronics Bluetooth headset is old and abused or if it’s the phone/Android but pairing the  two is a pain. I constantly have to un-pair and re-pair the devices to get them to work together.
  •  Front and back cameras!
  • Support for VOIP and Skype (this will be truly tested while at CEDIA Expo 2011 in a few weeks).
  • The camera takes good pictures and has a built-in flash but does not appear to have a zoom function.
  • Flash video supported – the Adobe kind! Nice to have it again.
  • One initial point of frustration was that for some reason I expected the phone to push contacts and calendar appointments up to my gmail account. While the sync is flawless with Exchange, and I receive gmail calender updates, content is not pushed to gmail. Not sure why I expected or wanted this, but it would be nice.
  • It seems hard to customize apps. With the iPhone I could allow or prevent apps from having access to location and other information; unfortunately this is not possible with Android’s Apps. The list of access rights you grant an app is daunting and disturbing.
  • Near Field Communications support – this will be cool once the technology has more widespread availability and usefulness.
  • Call quality is fine and the coolness factor is accentuated by the fact that the phone is not widely marketed.

Hopefully this phone lasts a while. Maybe my next phone will have this airbag app/device from Jeff Bezos.


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