Thursday, January 18, 2007

Connecting Digital Devices

The biggest problem in the consumer electronics industry is reportedly how to get devices to work together.

Everyone wants to sell the 'central device' that coordinates all others in the house, but no one can agree on what it will be - the PC, the set-top box, the games console, or even a new 'home server'.

What's more, no one can agree on what it will do - centrally store your photos, music and video, allow appropriate access to iPods and other computers, administer fridges, ovens and other objects, or just enable content to be shared across devices.

None of these ideas sound particularly enticing to me. Why would I want a complicated machine that manages all others in my house - can't they manage themselves? So long as I can listen to the same music on my iPod and stereo, or use the same address book on my phone and my PC, then I'm ok. If I really wanted to turn my oven on remotely, I would want to do it via any device - phone, PC, console - not just the central one.

What’s needed is not a central device, but a way for each device to publish content and services for the others to consume.

The solution is maddeningly obvious! We already have the technology - it's the humble URL! Why not give each device a URL, and why shouldn't each device publish its content to the web, for example via RSS feeds?

For example, my phone should offer its address book, call history, photos, and music via authenticated RSS (or Atom) feeds. And my PC should be subscribed to this RSS feed, keeping it automatically synchronized.

The beauty of this model is that it’s straightforward – people are used to typing URLs, and there are plenty of browsers around to enable it.

And it’s flexible. For example, rather than installing a web server on your phone, Google or Yahoo or Vodafone could host its content for you, by asking you to download synchronization software onto your phone. Then, you could see your phone’s photos and address book in Gmail or Yahoo! Mail. And from there, you could access them from any other device.

It’s also manageable. My web hosting company manages data backups, rather than me fiddling around on a PC or set-top box. If a device breaks or gets stolen, then I still have the data and I can turn services off, or delete content, remotely. If my train goes under a tunnel, then I use the latest RSS data cache for my email, rather than a live link.

Of course, subscription can work both ways. My phone could also be subscribed to my Gmail contacts RSS feed, so rather than fiddling around with phone keypads I could type my address book in Gmail, and it would synchronize automatically. Either Microsoft’s SSE extensions to RSS, or the Atom Publishing Protocol, could handle this.

I don’t think the power of the URL has sunk in, especially in the consumer electronics industry. The REST approach should be drilled in to product designers, and in particular the use of RSS / Atom for subscriptions and synchronization.

The whole problem of connecting digital devices boils down to publishing and syndication, and the solution to this problem is to use the internet.

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