July 2009 Archives

What follows is a conversational piece that I wrote for the August 2009 edition of Essential Install magazine:

Today the custom install (CI) market is experiencing a shift of seismic proportions. The earthquake has been triggered by the increasing availability of mass-produced, low cost yet high quality networked hardware for media storage and whole-home control. Change is not just coming to the custom install market, it is here, and the pace is being set by the largest technology companies in the world.

They have decreed that every home is to be a smarthome, every home is to have super-fast broadband internet connection and, most crucially for CI, every home is to have a standard ethernet network, allowing for plug and play services including audio, video, security, HVAC, lighting and automation. From Microsoft to Apple, from BT to Nokia, from Netgear to Cisco, the smarthome - the former bastion of CI - is the focus of their growth strategies. The challenge to custom installers right now is: adapt or die, because the world is evolving, and to survive you must evolve with it.

Why can't our proprietary systems survive? We've learnt how to roll out a high quality, tried-and-tested solution. We've invested in the technical training for our people and written banks of integration software. And it "just works".

Unfortunately, the past is no guide to the future. Time and again, the rules are rewritten when new technology fundamentally changes an industry's cost structure and delivers groundbreaking customer value. Today, the new rules allow customers to buy practically limitless networked storage with built-in media servers and beautiful touchscreen interfaces running open computing platforms to control just about everything in a smarthome - at commodity prices!

Then the Internet does its job and ensures that awareness of the new rules spreads far and fast. Customers have access to all the information at their fingertips. And in the midst of a tough recession, we are all seeking information and acquiring knowledge to make more carefully considered purchase decisions. People still spend money in recessions, but our buying criteria change. Bling is suddenly less relevant; long term value suddenly priority number one.

In this climate, proprietary systems just don't measure up. Proprietary systems introduce cost all along the value chain; think of all the manufacturers who have their own network infrastructure, or internal storage solution, or matrix switching solution, or bespoke programming language. All of this duplicated effort is passed on to the customer as cost. What about your business? Your people need special training from each manufacturer to learn their secret codes, and in return it limits what you can offer the customer. Again, value is destroyed. Proprietary systems make it harder for customers to benefit from future developments. Not only does the customer have nowhere to go, but the opportunities for the custom installer to make additional revenue from that customer by extending or enhancing the system are non-existent. Value is destroyed.

Many manufacturers have now woken up and embraced the change and introduced products that plug into the open network and are open to control from any interface. Some are making only the most tentative of steps out of sheer necessity, a sure sign that their business model is fundamentally flawed; Crestron and NetStreams (Essential Install, May 2009) may have lowered the drawbridge to their proprietary castles by supporting control via the iPod Touch but make no mistake, the power in the relationship lies with Apple. The trend is only going in one direction.

There are custom installers too, who have embraced the new business model - you could find them dotted around ISE 2009, at the edges of the halls, showcasing totally open networked solutions for the whole home. Many have an IT background. Whilst some see complexity in open networks, and worry about the robustness of the solution, these guys have no such fears and see only opportunity. They have just one set of technical skills to support - open networking skills - and they choose only products and services that interoperate on the open network. They deliver open solutions that can be upgraded over time, allowing them to develop long term customer relationships. They can pick and choose from the best-in-breed, open manufacturers and swap products in and out of their customer solutions without having to invest in new technical skills. They carry a major cost advantage over their more established competitors and are ramming it home in this financial climate. If you are attending CEDIA this year, seek out these installers, look at what they're doing and prepare to see many more of them at each successive CI event.

If you wish to adapt and build for the future, my advice is to start looking at what goes on the network rather than the network itself. The move to open is inevitable and at times such as these, the requirement to meet new commercial challenges compels us to examine what we are doing, and do it better. To seize the opportunities ahead we must stop seeing CI expertise as the installation of proprietary systems and instead install standard, open infrastructures, great value control solutions and deliver genuine customer value from the best-in-breed solutions for audio, video, security, lighting and everything else a customers desires.

When I read that Chris Brooks Audio in Warrington was running a Linn DS Technical Workshop I was intrigued, and decided to gatecrash:

http://forums.linn.co.uk/bb/showthread.php?tid=3196

The question on my mind was: Why do people with a great hi-fi dealer, who takes care of all the technical aspects of Linn DS installation, want to addle their brains with technical detail?

The answer, I discovered, is that even though those who attended were not techies, they had a number of technical concerns they wanted to address before they would be prepared to embark on the journey into digital streaming. Is my home network good enough to support a DS system? Is it worth paying for a NAS when much cheaper hard drives are available? How will I control a DS system and will it be easy?

Using a laptop connected to a giant screen, we went step-by-step through the installation and setup of a NAS, how to rip a CD, ways to install a high quality DS system without having to rip your walls apart and, finally, how to browse and select music using a simple control solution. On this last point, Linn's new KinskyDesktop was demonstrated, showing an easy way to drag and drop an album cover on-screen into the playlist to play the full album. The common desire was to make digital streaming at home as familiar as playing a CD but with more convenience.

Once this became evidently possible, the mood in the room noticeably relaxed, the tone of the questions was less anxious as people started to think about their specific requirements, and worry less about the technology itself. It reminded me how anxious I felt when I installed my own DS system at home - I think I needed to see it work consistently for a few weeks before I stopped worrying that I'd get an angry call from my wife telling me that the hi-fi had stopped working.

Since Linn DS was introduced in 2007, there have been a variety of simplifications and innovative new possibilities by Linn and others to make the transition from CD to DS a seamless and painless transition: NAS drives that automatically rip CD's to high quality digital audio files; DS control software for PC and Mac users (even in the same home) that showcase the album cover artwork and mean that any album is only a click or two away from playing; ways to control DS from handheld gadgets like the PDA or iPod Touch; the ability to use a universal remote control with DS.

Whatever the individual issues or concerns were of Chris Brooks' customers, the musical performance of Linn DS was not in doubt. Once you get comfortable with the ideas behind this groundbreaking technology, it hopefully becomes clear that you can access it simply, and enjoy the music without being bamboozled. 

Chris and his team, and his customers, were delighted with the event. Because it was arranged at fairly short notice, many who would have liked to have attended couldn't make it, so Chris tells me that they will run a similar DS workshop in a month or so's time. 

 

Welcome to my very first blog... in my job I am in a really lucky position where I get to visit lots of interesting places and meet extraordinary people. I'm really glad I can now share my personal experiences with anyone interested in reading about them...

This morning I went to the City Halls, home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow, to see the legendary Sir Charles Mackerras conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for Linn Records. Produced by Sir Charles' long-time associate, James Mallinson, and engineered by our very own Philip Hobbs, this is the same team's follow-up to Mozart Symphonies 38 - 41, winner of both the critics' Classical Brit Award 2009 and the public-voted BBC Music Magazine Award 2009.

It's the first time I've attended a recording session and I was surprised by what I saw and heard.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, an exceptionally talented and eclectic group of musicians, emanate from all over Europe. Unusually, or so I was told, there is not a weak link in the orchestra. Also unusually, after each take, the entire orchestra piled into the control room to hear themselves. Mallinson said: "This is the most engaged orchestra I've ever worked with. They come to listen to every take immediately with Sir Charles so that they can improve the performance. They take absolute responsibility for the quality of their output."

I enjoyed the sideways glances, grimaces and sniggers of the orchestra as they reacted to various foul-ups during the take, though I must admit that few were noticeable to me.

For one take, I was privileged to be allowed into the hall during the recording. There I could see the 16 shiny, new Sennheiser microphones positioned around the orchestra. Interestingly, these microphones, coupled with the latest 24bit / 192kHz A-D technology, mean that almost the entire mix comes from the stereo pair situated to the front left and right of the orchestra - in the listening position so to speak. "They pick up everything", said Hobbs, "which means that the latest recordings require less mixing than ever." And so? "And so the recording sounds far more like the live orchestra." A-ha!

"The Beethoven [Piano Concertos 3,4 & 5, Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Artur Pizarro] were 75% there," said Mallinson. "Now we have all the pieces in place, this one will be 100%."

I can't wait to hear it!