Friday, May 29, 2009

The age of the fleeting standard

Recently, the HDMI Founders group released HDMI 1.4. For those of you who are not familiar with what HDMI is, it's a specification for connecting A/V devices. In fact, that's what makes it special: it's a single cable that can transport both audio and video at the same time. In theory, this is a wonderful new thing, but there's information unsaid so far that might color this rosy picture.

To fully grasp why I have such issues with this new spec, let's travel back in time a bit. Right now, we're in the 1940s. A company called RCA has introduced a fancy new connector call the phono plug. It's a neat way to connect your phonograph to your amplifier. One, simple, sturdy, cable. All it does it transport a single audio channel.

Now, let's hop on over a few years to when stereo records became popular. The little cable that was so elegant in design is now doubled, and we have one for left and one for right. That's it.

A few decades later, we hit the end of the 1970s. Suddenly, there's a reason to upgrade your audio equipment and video equipment. The laserdisc has brought 5.1 surround sound to the home, and composite video has enabled people to connect video devices without all the static and fuss that came from the RF (radio frequency) connector. But not to worry, your collection of phono plug cables still works. That simple cable is used for everything you want to connect. Even when digital audio is introduced in the 1980s, that same cable can be used to transport that too.

It's not until the end of the 1980s that we see a new type of cable: the mini-DIN, or s-video cable. It provides a cleaner picture over the composite video that was being sent over our phono plug. Due to the nature of TV technology at the time, most people didn't bother with the new-fangled connector until the mid to late 1990s, and by then a new video standard was created called component video, that used, you guessed it: the phono plug!

Let's pause here in time. By the mid 1990s a home A/V setup could have 9 phono plugs between A/V devices. 6 for 5.1 surround and 3 for component video. Gosh, it's great that we can reuse that little connector, but it's a rat's nest back there! Let's reduce the clutter by replacing our 5.1 analog with some crisp, clean digital surround sound, using either a single phono plug, or a fancy fiber-optic cable.

Digital is great, but now it seems that some of my components use coax (the phono plug) and some use TosLink (the fiber optical), despite both being the same digital signal. Now I've got to make sure all my components talk with the same standards.

This setup was great for about 10 years. Then a great, new technology came to us: HDTV. High Definition. Thankfully, our good, old phono plug cables are here; we can use them to get nearly pixel perfect HDTV. But digital is perfect, and we only want one cable, not three.

So in 2003 the HDMI specification was born. A standard that could be used to connect your A/V equipment together using just one, thin, little cable. But it was only version 1.0.

One year later, they released version 1.1. This time you could have more types of audio over the cable. We've gone from a new standard every decade or so, to an update every year. Thankfully, we only need to upgrade our TV, receiver, and Blu-Ray player to get the new features, we can keep our old HDMI cable.

Now, in 2009, after 8 revisions on the "standard" (including 1.3b1), they've released version 1.4. Except this time, after we buy a new TV, receiver, and Blu-Ray player, we need to buy a new HDMI cable. But which one?

Wait: multiple cables? But I thought HDMI was supposed to be the end-all-be-all of standards? Where before we had a single cable that could do 1080p/60 (that's 1080 lines of a progressively scanned image at 60 frames per second) and DTS-HD Master Audio (that's 7.1 channel audio that sounds just like your local multiplex), we now have 5 different cables that all support different things.

The HDMI Founders group has now given us:
  • Standard HDMI Cable – supports data rates up to 1080i/60;
  • High Speed HDMI Cable – supports data rates beyond 1080p, including Deep Color and all 3D formats of the new 1.4 specification;
  • Standard HDMI Cable with Ethernet – includes Ethernet connectivity;
  • High Speed HDMI Cable with Ethernet – includes Ethernet connectivity;
  • Automotive HDMI Cable – allows the connection of external HDMI-enabled devices to an in-vehicle HDMI device.
The above is taken from here.

I'll ignore the automotive standard for this discussion, but let's focus on why the other four cables are a problem. The biggest issue here is instead of giving the consumer more, they're effectively hurting the consumer by giving manufactureres the option of only providing support for connecting the "standard" HDMI cable v1.4. If the press is to be believed, they've cut off the maximum video output at 1080i/60 (this means there are 1080 interlaced lines to the image, which is not as good as progressive), where as before we had 1080p/60. To continue to get your 1080p/60 fix, you need to ensure everything supports HDMI 1.4 "High Speed." Which brings me to the next problem, if we need a new cable as it is, just always give us Ethernet too. The cost of manufacturing the highest end cable is negligable. If the consumer chooses to buy a lower-end receiver now, that consumer shouldn't have to worry about replacing anything but the receiver later. But this way they not only buy a new receiver, but new cables too, all in the name of HDMI.

Why have we gone from a new interconnect every 10 or more years, to effectively a new one every year? Part of it has to do with the rapid pace of technology, but part of it - and I feel the driving force behind the HDMI Founders group's decision - is greed. HDMI Founders gets a licensing fee for each cable that is produced. What better way to increase revenue than by multiplying that license 5 times? Consumers may never have the luxury of buying a home theater setup that stays fresh for 10 years ever again, but they don't need anyone making it any more difficult.


Debra Fiterman said...

Ok...I think you lost me in the mid-1990s. But here is what I can understand: I clearly have found the PERFECT person to help me fix and set-up my home theater :)

Neiman said...

"The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much."

other than that, love the post!

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