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The Curse of Complexity

The lack of standardization among new devices forces exasperated users to adapt.

January 10, 2002|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — Mike Callaghan thought he'd gotten a good deal when he paid $3,200 for a 61-inch Hitachi digital TV.

Nearly $800 later, however, he's still struggling to make the thing work the way it did in the showroom.

Callaghan's tale of living-room woe is emblematic of how complex home entertainment gear has become for consumers. Digital technologies have brought high fidelity, great choice and convenience at ever-shrinking prices. But they've also been plagued by incompatibility, fickleness, dizzying configurations and endless differences among products.

Electronics manufacturers, which are introducing thousands of new products this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, say they're continually working to simplify mat- ters for their customers. But some industry analysts say the situation will get worse before it gets better.

"There are so many new products on the horizon here that there's a tremendous amount of ... growing pains that have to be gone through before you get to the payoff at the end," said analyst Michael Goodman of the Yankee Group.

Even such basic steps as connecting a receiver to a monitor can be daunting, as Callaghan recently learned.

In the hands of competing manufacturers, digital technology has become a tool to create a confounding array of formats and specifications--and a befuddling lack of standardization.

Callaghan, a Charleston, W. Va., general manager for a manufactured-housing company, bought the Hitachi TV set for its finely detailed picture and cinema-quality sound. Like other "high definition ready" products, though, the Hitachi can't display an HDTV picture unless it's connected to a digital receiver, which is sold separately.

After buying an RCA DirecTV receiver for $550, he discovered that its HDTV plug fit only RCA TVs. He also learned that only one wire from a satellite dish could connect to the receiver, but he had two dishes on his roof--one for regular DirecTV programming, the other for HDTV channels. He found an adapter online to connect the receiver to the TV, but he's still waiting for the special box he needs to merge the two dishes into a single feed.

"IQs don't help a lot," Callaghan said of his dilemma. "This is a different animal."

Callaghan's problems stem from a common shortcoming in the world of digital home-entertainment gear: the lack of a standard way to connect devices.

Analyst Richard Doherty of the Envisioneering Group, a technology research and consulting firm, blames legal disputes and corporate greed for the proliferation of connectors. Companies developed and patented techniques for linking devices, injecting competition into an arena where consumers long for a standard approach.

For example, digital TV monitors use at least five incompatible plugs and sockets to connect to digital receivers. The field probably will narrow to two types of digital connectors that Hollywood favors, but the vast majority of the "HDTV ready" models sold today don't have either.

And every time manufacturers migrate to a new connector for better fidelity, picture quality or security, consumers with older devices find themselves, like Callaghan, searching for an adapter.

Companies are trying to make things simpler and easier for consumers, said Thomson spokesman Dave Arland. "But at the same time, there's an engineering effort to make yourselves different from everybody else," he added.

The situation isn't helped by the proliferation of boxes in the living room, some connecting to the TV set, some to the stereo and some to both. Many consumers are confounded by the limits that these boxes place on each other for no apparent reason--a digital satellite receiver that wipes out a TV's picture-in-picture feature, say, or a digital cable box that can't change channels on the VCR.

A host of other factors is increasing the complexity of home entertainment devices.

Incompatible formats

Although digital data boils down to a common language of ones and zeros, companies have developed dozens of ways to package, compress, store and transmit that information. Each format has its adherents, splintering manufacturers into rival camps backing different standards.

For example, just because a compact disc has songs or a movie on it, that doesn't mean your CD or DVD player can play it. There are three types of CDs, six types of DVDs and more than a dozen ways of encoding music or video on them. Each type may be unrecognizable to a disc player that doesn't have the right technology.

Perhaps the most common complaint is that manufacturers use a unique remote control for almost every device they make. Instead of having a standard set of infrared commands for adjusting the volume on a TV and changing the channel on a cable box, manufacturers use different electronic codes even within the same brand.

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