Open Source Culture

open sourceSometimes the genesis of a blog is a funny thing. I listened to a TedX talk about a month ago on open source culture, and immediately had the inspiration to write this piece but just hadn’t found the time yet. Then last week, Alan Vezina of Jydo, a company I’ve heard of but still need a lesson in how to pronounce, wrote a great piece about how The AV Industry Needs to Open Up which spurred me to finally get this posted. Alan’s article dealt mostly with programming and proprietary hardware for control systems and played off of some great pieces on programming posted lately on rAVe. However, the call to “Open Up” and the potential benefits for AV of doing so extend way beyond the subject of programming.

Before we go forward there though, let’s go back.

I geek out on podcasts, especially TedX. I subscribe to TedX radio on my iPhone, so I often listen while driving, (I use that word to describe sitting in a parking lot on the 405) across LA and OC. One of these shows was on Open Source Culture.

One of the guests was Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web (W3) while at CERN. For many of us, there wouldn’t even be any thought of the W3 having a competitor, but in the beginning it did.  Gopherspace. Gopher was a protocol developed by the University of Minnesota and at one time was dominating the W3.  I won’t go into all the details, as that is what Wikipedia is for, but there was one very interesting turn of events that changed the course for Gopherspace and allowed the W3 to achieve victory.

Gopherspace wanted to start charging license fees. As a reaction, in April 1993, CERN released a statement saying that it would release the rights to any royalties on the W3 protocol and that it would remain free and open to anyone. The rest, as they say, is history.

It seems that proprietary protocols are actually a hindrance to growth, despite some of the innate technical advantages that may be conferred by owning the whole chain from beginning to end.

Just Add Power for instance has been in the Video over IP space for quite a while, and has some products that perform extremely well. They went head to head with HDBaseT products in 2013 at my video extender challenge and passed 2560x1080p easily at that time. However, despite their successes and early mover advantage, they’ve never really exploded into the space. This year they came out with an even better version of their product, one that their marketing team reached out to me about.  It seems like an amazing piece of technology that supports UHD and 4K at 60 HZ (although not at full bit depth) and has low latency.  Are they doing this through the new HEVC H.265 or an MPEG4 or JPEG2000 standard? No. They are using their “own proprietary algorithm”, and this may be the hurdle to mass adoption. The devices aren’t cross compatible with others as they don’t use industry standard encoding and decoding strategies. According to Just Add Power, “After enjoying 20+ years of independent product development and design, we prefer to have the freedom and flexibility to pursue continuous improvement. Once you adopt/embrace a so-called ‘compatible industry standard’, your hands are tied.” I can’t argue their point that owning the chain can ensure more control over the end product, but I can say that it also may have an affect on your addressable market.

I have argued that Apple’s HomeKit project may hit the same barriers, given they require HomeKit products to all become MFi licensees and produce hardware to their specs. Now Apple has a history of flipping business models based on iTunes, but I’m not sure the tactic will work when competing in the home control market against Google and the Android/Nest ecosystem without these same restrictions. My guess would be that the more open system wins. I mean how many of you have Nest thermostats and how many have Ecobee models? Exactly.

Let’s be honest, if you’ve been in the AV integration business for any length of time, you’ve been plagued by products that use varying, proprietary standards. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Cat5/6 based HDMI extender market. Some worked, others didn’t, some needed low skew cable, and some, worst of all worked on some jobs and then failed for no apparent reasons on others. This is why HDBaseT was so welcome in our industry, even before it was a standard. With all the manufacturers using the same chip, the potential for a positive outcome became exponentially better and cross compatibility at least became an option. (We won’t discuss the 5-Play variations here, that’s a whole other piece).

To take the HDBaseT story a step further, the HDBaseT Alliance eventually made HDBaseT an IEEE standard. This was a good move as it gives the protocol some IEEE clout, something that may be helpful in getting IT managers to adopt and accept these products on their networks, although the signals cannot be passed through existing network switches. Again, there could be a whole other blog on this topic, (and there will be), but even with the IEEE endorsement, I believe HDBaseT has limited themselves by not being route-able through and existing network switch.

I asked the Alliance about this potential missed opportunity and they related that the ethernet standard has 7 layers, and each layer has their own committee. If you’ve ever suffered death by committee, imagine trying to do anything through seven of them. This coupled with the fact that ethernet wasn’t created with streaming HD video in mind, and I can sympathize with the decision to create a whole new methodology. It enabled them to act without the constraints or politics of the old standard and its committees and to create a whole new standard that may help their technology proliferate. Given Valens is the only one making the HDBaseT chip currently, and they are about to release their 2.0 version soon, opening up the communication protocol as a standard helped them more than it hurt them. They will still sell the same amount of chips, that is unless someone decides to enter the arena and play catch up. This is really an in between strategy, as its not open source, but its not 100% proprietary either.

If you look at Crestron and Extron, two companies known for the proprietary nature of their systems, even they have started to soften on their traditional “end to end” stance on system design and support. Initially, Crestron marketed HDBaseT as DM, 8G, DM4K etc somewhat disguising their HDBaseT underpinnings. Now however, they have started to de-emphasize the need for a “receiver” at each display device and start to promote the use of their transmitters in conjunction with integrated HDBaseT ports on display devices. Extron has taken their HDBaseT products originally branded as DTP and added the ability to select HDBaseT modes as well as created a whole page stressing HDBaseT compatibility.

So perhaps the move at least towards standards is happening, although standards are not quite the same as open source. We’re also creating more standards beside existing standards, which really doesn’t help a ton either. To get real momentum, we need multiple companies or groups of products all making shifts towards using the same things, and not just getting their already proprietary methodology certified by IEEE to make it a “standard.” It’s only standard if others are using it.

If we create a truly open environment, that everyone can design to, then we can realize the true potential of our spaces. It is ironic that our industry has been “selling” Unified Communications to our customers for their businesses that utilize systems that are rarely unified and many times can’t communicate with each other very well.

Now that consumer facing manufacturers like Apple and Google are selling systems direct to the end user, it has become even more important to create differentiation in the commercial AV space. If we are just proposing an alternate “silo” based system, tying a customer to a line of products that we sell but they have never heard of, they may very well continue to utilize the packaged off the shelf systems from internet and embrace their limitations instead. After all, what are we offering that is different?

However, if our AV manufacturing partners can break down their barriers to communication, and create a cross compatible ecosystem with the reliability and redundancy of their legacy proprietary counterparts, why wouldn’t we want to do that? At some point, we all have to work together to save the industry as a whole. If we continue to live in the “silo mindset” so that we can fight it out in a diminishing market, we’ll be out of business before we know it. However, if we can cooperate and create innovation among ourselves, we can effectively fight off the proliferation of consumer devices, by making our experience not only easy and universal, but also better.

Just a thought. What do you think? Let me know in the comments.