Category: The Front Line

On Samsung , Pro AV, Car Audio, and Control

By now, you’ve most certainly heard or read the news that Samsung – the Korean consumer electronics giant – has agreed to purchase Harman International Industries, a holding company with a diversity of CE brands (Harman/Kardon, JBL) and pro AV marques (AKG, AMX, BSS, Crown, dbx, DigiTech, JBL Professional, Lexicon, Martin, Soundcraft, and Studer).

Much has been made of the fact at Samsung is zeroing in to the automotive market with this acquisition. The company has no real presence in car audio, having made its reputation on televisions, computers, smart phones, and appliances. And there’s no question that the potential business for connected, smart cars is enormous – it’s already attracted the attention of Intel, Microsoft, Google, and Apple.

So why did this deal happen? There are a number of reasons, but the most obvious is a scramble for profits. While Samsung remains the worldwide leader in TV shipments and sales, Chinese companies like TCL and Hisense are closing the gap and breathing hard on Samsung’s shoulders. Concurrently, prices of finished televisions are plummeting, even with the transition to Ultra HD: I saw a Philips 55-inch 4K set offered for less than $600 on Black Friday.

Business prospects don’t look much better with mobile phones. The market for smartphones is basically saturated in the U.S. and carriers are moving away from fixed contracts to month-by month deals with lesser-known models. It didn’t help that the much-ballyhooed Galaxy Note 7 developed serious battery issues, costing the company billions of dollars in recalls.

There has already been a shift in the company’s marketing efforts to major appliances (white goods), as evidenced by the last two booth setups at CES. Refrigerators, freezers, washers, dryers, ovens, and small appliances are still profitable for the company. But the largest market in the world for displays – transportation – has eluded Samsung’s grasp, at least in North America.

Let’s not forget that Samsung has a rather large display device manufacturing business, particularly for mobile devices. They’ve made substantial investments in both LCD and OLED technology, with the latter widely used in the company’s Galaxy smartphones and tablets. Flexible OLEDs are a natural for automotive applications where there is considerable vibration and flexing – not to mention G-forces.

Most of the news reports I’ve read have focused on the car audio and connectivity angles of this deal. In contrast, the questions coming from our community are all about Samsung’s ulterior motives in the commercial AV space. They’re already a major player in digital signage. Now, they’ll also own a control systems company (AMX) that also happens to make signal management and distribution products, along with video encoders and decoders (SVSI).

The real question is this: Does Samsung – a very IT-centric company – care all that much about switching and distributing HDMI and HDBaseT signals? I’ll go out on a limb here and say, “No.” Practically speaking, Samsung – which is already pushing AV over IT for its digital signage products – can have signal management products manufactured inexpensively in China by OEMs (as many companies already do now) and sell them at rock-bottom prices.

In the larger picture, the income from those operations will be dwarfed by revenue from car audio, navigation, and Internet of Things products. And Samsung will definitely have an interest in controlling AV devices, but their focus will be IT-based control using apps and icons, not proprietary control systems with custom programming.

What’s particularly intriguing about this acquisition is that Samsung (as pointed out in a New York Times article) “…keeps tight control of its supply chain — often owning its suppliers outright — and has mostly eschewed big deals to fill in holes in its portfolio.”

The Samsung/Harman acquisition is just another example of consolidation in our industry. You see it every day in other sectors, ranging from health insurance companies (Aetna & Humana) to airlines (American and US Air) and semiconductors (Qualcomm and NXP). It’s all about the search for profitability as costs keep going up and margins keep going down. The long-term trend is for manufacturers to move more of their products to distribution and away from direct dealer sales. Unless a dealer can hit an ever-higher monthly sales quota, the manufacturer is better off simply working through a distributor; minimizing paperwork and warehousing costs while boosting profits. That’s the Wal-Mart/Target/BJ’s/Costco model!

You only need look at the costs of AV gear to understand why; specifically, portable business projectors. In the overall scheme of things, these projectors are becoming more of a low-cost niche product these days. Accordingly, they’re sold mostly through distribution from online dealers or from brick-and-mortar office supply distributors like Staples (which acquired Office Depot in 2015).

The real wild card is the migration to IT infrastructures for signal distribution – and that very much includes 802.11x and proprietary wireless systems. As product costs come down and IT interfaces are added, our professional products start looking more like consumer products. (This has only been going on for 15+ years now, just in case you weren’t paying attention.)

At some point, this combination of CE features and lower prices will lead many of us to install a consumer product, like large televisions instead of professional monitors. That’s also been going on for some time, as has the use of Apple TV to ‘mirror’ iOS tablets and Mac laptops in meeting rooms and classrooms.

So where does this all take us? For one thing, you will see more consolidation of brands in the AV industry by the end of the decade. Example: There are simply too many small companies selling signal management and control products to share in the wealth – some will go under; others will merge to stay alive, or be bought out.

Ditto companies that sell display products: They’ll either become part of a larger “umbrella” holding company like Harman, or simply close their doors. A good example of the latter is Milestone, which has aggregated Chief, Da-Lite, Sanus, and Projecta.

The writing is on the wall. I attend the Consumer Electronics Show every year and compare what I see there to what’s happening at NAB and InfoComm. The products are becoming smarter; can self-configure in many cases, rely more than ever on IT connectivity and wireless, and have shrinking price tags.

That, in turn, is shifting the focus to how we use these products with less emphasis on how they work, and how to install them – just like in the world of consumer electronics. This shift to more consumer-centric AV products started 20+ years ago with the first LCD projectors and flat screen displays, and has done nothing but pick up speed since.

It’s a new game with new rules…

Hey, Whatever Happened To superMHL?

There is no such thing as a ‘sure thing.’ You can have a 20-yard field goal try with 5 seconds left, two foul shots left to ice the game, or a one-on-one penalty shot with your best wing on the ice. Doesn’t matter – things do go awry. In fact, sometimes they never get going in the first place.

Two years ago this coming January, Silicon Image (now Lattice Semiconductor) unveiled what they claimed to be the best next-generation display interface. They called it superMHL, and it was super indeed; sporting a large, 32-pin symmetrical plug design to go with a 36 gigabits-per-second (Gb/s) data transfer rate.

That’s wasn’t all. superMHL (basically MHL on steroids) also supported the new Display Stream Compression (DSC) 1.1 standard. And it would also work with the all-important USB 3.0 Type-C plug’s Alternate Mode, which multiplexed display connections and fast USB serial data in the same ‘smart’ plug.

Wow! I didn’t see this coming; neither did most of the trade press in attendance. Here was a connector faster than DisplayPort’s version 1.3 (32 Gb/s), plus it was symmetrical in operation (plug it in either way, it doesn’t care, it’s smart enough to set itself up the right way). And it was compatible with the next generation of USB connectors.

Even more amazing, the MHL Consortium demo showed 8K content flowing to a large Samsung 8K TV through this interface, which claimed to support 7680×4320 video @ 60 Hz with 4:2:0 color (albeit using DSC to pack things down a bit in size). If there was ever a ‘sure thing,’ this was it!

It's the fastest display interface out there - and no one uses it. Maybe they should call it HDMI 3.0?

It’s the fastest display interface out there – and no one uses it. Maybe they should call it HDMI 3.0?

I was assured in the following months that Lattice and the MHL Consortium would have several press announcements pertaining to design wins for the 2015 holiday season. I’d see several new UHDTV televisions with at least one superMHL port and the rest of the inputs would be HDMI 2.0 connections. Thus, we’d be ready for the brave new world of 8K TV! (Never mind that 4K TV was still getting on its feet at the time!)

But it never happened. Black Friday, Christmas, New Year’s, and then ICES and the 2016 Super Bowl came and went with no announcements. At ICES 2016, the MHL Consortium once again had a demo of 8K content playback through an LG 98-inch LCD TV using the superMHL interface, and “yes, it looked great” and “we’re ready for 8K TV” and “it works with USB Type-C” and so on, and so forth.

Right now, it’s pretty much radio silence about superMHL. So what happened?

For one thing, the adoption rate of HDMI 2.0 since its formal unveiling in 2013 can be charitably described as “slow.” Early Ultra HDTVs had perhaps one HDMI 2.0 port on them, and not all of them supported the new HDCP 2.2 copy protection protocol. In our industry, we’re only now starting to see distribution amplifiers and switches with HDMI 2.0 connections – there’s still a lot of version 1.4 product out there, too.

Another perplexing question: Since superMHL fixes the speed limit problems of HDMI 2.0 by doubling them – and also adds the all-important compatibility with USB Type-C (a must, going forward) along with support for DSC (critical as we push display resolutions beyond 5K), why would Lattice continue to support both formats, or even suggest they could be mixed on future UHD+ televisions and monitors?

In other words; if there is a better option, then why wouldn’t you want that option?

To be sure; Lattice is in a tricky position. Through their subsidiary HDMI Licensing LLC, they reap millions of dollars each year in royalties associated with every HDMI port on every piece of consumer and commercial gear. That’s a nice cash flow, and who wants to mess with it?

But they really can’t lose here, inasmuch as they control the IP for all of these transition-minimized differential signaling (TMDS) interfaces. Why not bite the bullet and announce the phase-out of HDMI 1.3/1.4, and move everyone to version 2.0? Better yet; just announce a sunset for version 2.0 and start the transition to superMHL, a/k/a HDMI 3.0?

Yeah, it's fun to demo 8K TV using superMHL, but that takes the focus off the real-world, practical interfacing solutions we're facing now.

Yeah, it’s fun to demo 8K TV using superMHL, but that takes the focus off the real-world, practical interfacing solutions we’re facing now.

One problem Lattice created with this new connector is that it’s effectively an oxymoron. MHL stands for Mobile High-definition Link, and it was originally designed to multiplex HDMI signals through 5-pin micro USB ports. The concept was that the single micro USB connector on your smartphone or tablet could connect to a television so you could play back videos, show photos, and share your screen. (Never mind that the majority of people prefer to do this via a wireless connection and not a 15-foot HDMI-to-micro USB cable that often requires a power adapter.)

So MHL meant “small, fast, and powerful.” And now we have the ‘funny car’ of display interfaces with a large connector that will never get anywhere near your mobile device…and the way things are going, it may never get anywhere near your TV, either.

In previous columns and in my classes and talks, I’ve written about the deficiencies of HDMI 2.0 – slow speed, non-symmetrical, no support for USB Type-C (finally remedied a few months ago) and lack of support for Display Stream Compression. superMHL fixes all of these problems in one fell swoop.

The answer? Re-brand this connector as HDMI 3.0 – which it really is – and make the appropriate announcement in two months at ICES 2017. Practically speaking; MHL has been a non-starter (among major U.S. brands, only Sony, Samsung, and LG have supported it on their smartphones and TVs) and the adoption rate for HDMI 2.0 is nowhere near as fast as it was for version 1.3. Too many interfaces and too much confusion!

After all, even Elvis Presley had to make a comeback…

Everything Old Is New Again: Goodbye To The VCR

This past summer, the Funai Corporation of Japan decided to stop manufacturing videocassette recorders (VCRs) after several decades, citing their inability to source parts as the reason.

What’s that you say? You didn’t even know anyone was STILL making VCRs in 2016?

A reporter for the Washington Post was referred to me by The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) for some pithy quotes about the demise of the VCR, which had its debut in the United States 40 years ago this past summer. Yes, the ½” videocassette format has been around for some time, with the most popular iteration being the VHS format developed by Japan Victor Corporation, better known as JVC.

Sony also had a ½” videocassette format for home use called Betamax, and in many ways, it was a better way to record and watch TVs shows along with movies. But Sony’s insistence at keeping Betamax a proprietary format (a la Apple with Mac OS and iOS) eventually doomed it.

In contrast, JVC licensed VHS to a long list of companies: Panasonic. Hitachi, Philips. RCA. Zenith. GE. Sharp. You name the CE company; they probably sold a VHS VCR at some point. And that had a lot to do with the success of the format, which soon migrated to consumer camcorders. There was even a short-lived digital version (D-VHS) for recording HD programs and playing back movies in HD, starting in the late 1990s. Blu-ray soon killed that off, though.

When you think about it, the VCR was really at the top (or bottom) of a family tree that leads directly to today’s streaming, on-demand video services. And here’s why – the VCR created the concept of time-shifting; recording a TV program so you could watch when you wanted to, not when CBS, ABC, or NBC said you could.

VCRs also gave us the ability to skip through commercials, pause, and rewind to watch a clip over and over again. Or the entire show, for that matter. After Hollywood lost the famous Sony vs. Universal Studios Supreme Court decision in early 1984 – which ruled that making recordings of TV shows for home viewing was considered “fair use” under copyright statutes – the floodgates opened.

Not long after, studios started making movies available on VHS and Betamax cassettes for sale. Enterprising individuals, noting the $90 and $100 price tags for movies on cassette, opened small video rental clubs. For having your credit card on file, you could rent a movie for $5 or $6, making sure to rewind it (or paying an extra fee) and returning it for another movie.

Hollywood studios weren’t happy with this turn of events until smarter heads realized the additional revenue stream could add millions to the bottom line. And so companies like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video came into existence, happily raking in the cash as stacks of rental cassettes walked out the door every night.

The introduction of the DVD format almost 20 years ago (yes, it HAS been that long!) posed an immediate threat to the VHS format. (Betamax had long since folded its tent and left town.) Now, you didn’t need to rewind anything, and there was no annoying, blinking “12:00” indicator staring at you the entire time.

Bet of all, you could now jump through chapters of a movie by looking at I-frames. Fast forward, pause, and reverse were still available, but in theory, an optical disc would long outlast a VHS tape. It didn’t take long before video rental stores started replacing VHS tapes with DVDs, and by 2005, it was almost impossible to find a movie on VHS.

That was the first year that DVD sales began to decline, although rentals held their own for a few more years. Looming on the horizon were two new HD optical disc formats – HD DVD and Blu-ray – and Hollywood was giddy anticipating wheelbarrows of cash coming in. (True fact: The first Austin Powers movie was largely ignored at the box office and made most of its money through DVD rentals and purchases.)

But there was a fly in the ointment. About 7 years earlier, a company called TiVo unveiled something called the digital video recorder, or DVR. This gadget would let you record analog broadcast and cable TV programs to a hard drive – no tape or disc needed. TiVo sold a subscription program guide service, which is where they made most of their money. I had one of the first Philips-made TiVo units (14-hour capacity) and bought a lifetime subscription for $99 back in 1999, using a dial-up connection to refresh the program guide.

So now we could record a TV program, skip the commercials; fast-forward, pause and rewind, and simply delete the file when we were done. “Did you TiVo Letterman last night?” soon became water cooler talk. Along the way, we had obviated the need for any kind of recording media – tape or disc – in favor of solid-state storage.

A year after DVD sales started their decline, I bought one of TiVo’s first HD DVRs. It accepted CableCARDs, so it would work with Comcast. And it had dual DVRs (Wow!) so I could record two programs at once. It was big and noisy, but it served me well for 9 years.

Along the way, companies like Comcast, Time Warner, Charter, Dish Network, Verizon, and DirecTV came out with their own DVRs, some of which could record 4 or more shows at once. Now, you could record movies in high definition and watch them at your pleasure on your brand-new big-screen plasma or LCD TV.

And that brings us to the present day. Hollywood Video is long gone, and Blockbuster is bankrupt; its assets bought by Dish Network. The Blu-ray format, having vanquished HD DVD, isn’t the cash cow that Hollywood anticipated as more and more video and movies are watched via ever-faster streaming connections. DVD players – once selling for $1,000 – can be found for $19.99. And Blu-ray players with WiFi are widely available for about $50 – $70.

Netflix has now evolved into a streaming media monster, as has Amazon. YouTube, a pioneer in streaming shared videos, now offers a “red” premium tier, free of commercials. HBO and Showtime, along with ABC and CBS, have started subscription streaming services that can be purchased without a cable or satellite subscription. Episodic TV series are being produced for streaming channels and they’re not scrimping on production values.

So we’ve come full circle. My Comcast Xfinity set-top box is a DVR, but it streams channels from a cloud server, not from an internal hard drive. My contacts at Comcast tell me we’re not far from the day when there won’t be any set-top (or sidecar) receivers at all – your smart Ultra HDTV with WiFi will do all the heavy lifting. (After all, smart TVs are basically computers with big display screens these days.)

Today, you can go quite happily through life without having to wind a tape or load a disc in order to watch HDTV.  And that’s exactly the way things were forty years ago. Weird, right? Except you now have hundreds of channels to choose from; all of which can be streamed on-demand depending on the service you subscribe to.

Time-shifting. Commercial skipping. DVDs. Blu-ray. DVRs. Chapter searches. Video streaming. All of these grew directly out of that first VHS VCR that was sold 40 years ago.

And all you need to watch it is a smart TV and a remote. Everything old is indeed new again…

 

 

 

 

OLEDs Can Fold. So What?

The idea that a folding OLED display will somehow revolutionize portable product design and create a volcanic market expansion periodically raises its ill-conceived head. A recent occurance was the presentation by UBI Research president Choon Hoon Yi at IMID 2016 in Jeju entitled “Flexible OLED Opens New Digital Convergence.” Yi’s “digital convergence era” refers to the convergence of phone and tablet, in which the screen can be completely folded and unfolded, allowing a 5-inch phone screen to become tablet sized.

Is it possible to develop OLED displays so flexible they can be said to fold? Yes. Is it then plausible that such a display can be integrated into a “convergence” product that consumers will actually buy in large numbers? That part is questionable.

The foldable concept most people seem to think of is shown in this photo of a 2013 Samsung design demonstration. The display inside the folder wraps around both halves to make the double-sized display when the folder is opened. So, when the folder is closed, we have three thickness of display. Well, okay, polymer OLEDs are thin. We also have three thicknesses of touch panels, three thicknesses of Gorilla glass, and at least two flex circuits. You’ll probably need multiple audio drivers, microphones, and cameras so they can be pointed in the right directions when the folder is open and closed. This is becoming a rather beefy device, and consumers like their phones thin. They have also, especially in North American and Asia, enthusiastically rejected clamshell phones. And this is, no matter how you try to wriggle around it, a clamshell.

This Samsung foldable OLED technology demo was shown fairly extensively in 2013.  (Photo:  Samsung)

This Samsung foldable OLED technology demo was shown fairly extensively in 2013. (Photo: Samsung)

Next problem. When the device is open and in tablet mode, the screen must be rigid and flat both to provide a distortion-free image for movie watchers and a usable touch screen for swiping and typing. That means our folder can not be made of flexible, supple Corinthian leather, unless its supported with a rigid sheet of something. And the folding part has to be supported by a robust hinge that locks at 180 degrees, and perhaps at other angles, as well.

Can each of these design challenges be dealt with by clever engineers and lots of development money? Sure they can, but in the end you are significantly compromising the user’s experience of a phone or a tablet in order to create this convergence device.

Compare it with the iPhone 7 or Samsung Galaxy S7, which are slim, sleek, polished, and very, very good at what they do. The Galaxy S7 has an OLED display and the S7 Edge has a flexible one. Of course, it is only flexed once, when the phone is assembled, but that’s enough.

In fact, while it is very easy to envision extremely useful applications for flexible OLEDs, it is very hard to envision practical applications that require the OLED to be flexed more than once. Except for one. But that’s another story.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications, including mobile devices and television. He consults for attorneys, investment analysts, and companies re-positioning themselves within the display industry or using displays in their products. You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

LeEco: Today Vizio, Tomorrow the World?

When LeEco (Leshi Internet Information & Technology) exhibited at one of the press-and-analyst shows at CES 2016, it had not yet changed its name from Letv. Letv showed prototypes and products that were notable both for their variety and strikingly handsome industrial designs.

Some of those products also contained advanced components. At Qualcomm’s CES press briefing, the company said the Letv Le Max Pro was the “first announced smartphone” to use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 processor, as well as the phone with the “first announced support” for Multi-gigabit 11ad in a smartphone. Early members of the Le Max family went on sale in China in July 2015, and quickly became the best-selling high-end phone in China, topping both Apple and Samsung, according to Sino Market Research.

But the change of name from Letv to LeEco is appropriate because the company’s focus is on a global ecosystem strategy it calls “Le Ecosystem” — an Internet-based platform encompassing content and applicatons, as well as devices. The company also has a dizzying array of other businesses, including eco-agriculture, Internet-connected electric cars, and a cinema production company.

At one of the press-and-analysts-only events held at CES 2016, LeEco (then called Letv) showed a variety of its electronic products (as well as a bicycle).  The handsomely designed thin TV seen edge-on is the Max65 Blade, a 65-inch UHD set that is only 3.9mm thick thanks to a Corning Iris Glass light-guide plate.  The SoC is a Snapdragon 810.  (Photo:  Ken Werner)

At one of the press-and-analysts-only events held at CES 2016, LeEco (then called Letv) showed a variety of its electronic products (as well as a bicycle). The handsomely designed thin TV seen edge-on is the Max65 Blade, a 65-inch UHD set that is only 3.9mm thick thanks to a Corning Iris Glass light-guide plate. The SoC is a Snapdragon 810. (Photo: Ken Werner)

The LeEco Group (Beijing) started when Jia Yueting establilshed Letv.com in 2004. Now called Le.com, it is among the largest on-line video providers in China. LeEco started its TV hardware business only recently, in 2013. According to IHS, LeEco “focuses on the growth of the paid content subscription, while it sells TV hardware at below manufacturing cost or even provides it for free during promotional periods.” Please keep that in mind as you read the following paragraphs.

On July 26, as is well known in our community, LeEco and U.S.-based TV manufacturer Vizio announced the LeEco would acquired VIZIO for $2 billion. The combined TV sales of VIZIO (No. 2 in the U.S.) and LeEco (No. 7 in China) would have been sixth in the world in 2015, ahead of Skyworth.

Vizio’s management and customer service teams will remain in place, and the company’s sets have always been made in China, so it’s the global strategies and synergies that are important here. LeEco buys VIZIO’s know-how and sales and distribution infrastructure in the U.S. VIZIO gets access to the Asian (including Chinese) market, where it currently has little exposure.

We’re not done yet. On August 2, Variety reported an upcoming content deal between LeEco and Netflix. “We are planning a very significant cooperation with Netflix,” said Liu Hong, co-founder and vice chairman of LeEco, speaking in Beijing on Tuesday. “Details will be announced in the third quarter.”

A quick look at Le.com shows a large selection of Chinese-language films and videos. How does Netflix content fit in there? It could, of course, with dubbing or subtitles, and a period for approval from Chinese censors (which is becoming a lengthier and more thorough process). But China may not be where LeEco intends to go with the Netflix content. The company intends to come here.

LeEco will officially announce its new U.S. presence this autumn. PR director Todd Witkemper said LeEco has about 400 U.S.-based employees now and intends to have a thousand by year’s end, reported Jimmy Westenberg in a June 17 posting on Android Authority. The company will reportedly introduce a video streaming service and very competitively priced smartphones to the U.S.

LeEco is also rolling out its phones and a video streaming service in India. Variety speculates that a LeEco/Netflix deal might also be done for the Indian market.

So, are we likely to see free VIZIO sets being used as inducements to sign up for LeEco’s new U.S. streaming service? If LeEco attempts their free-device strategy in the U.S., I would guess using their own smartphones is more likely. We’ll see.