The Lean Back Computing Manifesto of 2014

Some great discussion on This Week in Tech last Sunday. Essentially the panelists, including my man Fr. Robert Ballecar, the Digital Jesuit and host of the solid This Week in Enterprise Tech podcast, gave more than passing consideration to the challenges inherent in creating a cohesive and stupid-proof lean back computing experience in the living room way to consume the stuff you and your family want in the living room, without getting hassled by technology.

Ahh yeah. This is some fertile territory. Lean back computing, as I like to think of it, touches everything in tech: law, consumer technology, enterprise technology, cloud stuff, mobile, storage, everything! This is what Jobs “cracked” before he died; this is where the promise of high technology, it’s amazing potential, the Holodeck if you will, dies a sad and wretched death inside a rats nest of copper cables piled and twisted up behind your ikea entertainment center.

Your living room. Your stuff. Your family. The Holy Grail of tech.

As the TWiT crew pointed out, Google is rumored to release a NexusTV early next year, their third solid (fourth I guess, if you count the Nexus Q) assault on the standards-less, walled-off, crutch-dependent technology fortress that is the living room. Amazon supposedly is building a Roku-knockoff as well, hoping you’ll pony up $100 or so to get what most smart TVs come with already. The XBox One, what Nilay Patel has mockingly called the world’s greatest GoogleTV thanks to its HDMI pass-through feature, has sold 2 million units and of course, Apple is in the space as well.

And that’s before you get to the big network TV providers, not to mention the consumer TV makers, the wannabe disruptors (Aereo!) and the content makers.

"An IR Blaster! That's a great idea to solve this problem," said no one ever
“By Jove I’ve got it! We’ll invent an IR Blaster! Consumers will love it!” said no one ever

It’s as if your living room and your family’s digital stuff is the prom queen, all dolled up, with sweet perfume, rouge colored cheeks,  a knock ’em dead smile and a hot mother, while Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and TWC, Comcast and Rokus of the world are the high school starting QB, its captain of the basketball team, and the clutch swimmer on the 4×400 relay, and all of them are competing just to get into your stuff. The analogy goes even further: like teenage boys, they make stupid bone-headed mistakes in an attempt to impress you, to get you to surrender. A GoogleTV here, an IR blaster there, a rented SciAtlanta cable box with CIFS access here,…you know the drill. Just so many guys revving their IROC Camaros in the school parking lot, trying to impress you with the new shiny.

But it’s 2013 and we’ve been bitten many times by the shiny and we’re jaded now. Boys are all liars! Men suck and all that.

If you’re the household technologist, then you’re like me and you’ve been through some serious battles on this front and have thought a lot about it. And just as a virtuous prom queen on prom night can call the shots for her potential suitors, so too am I going to lay out the ground rules for the competition when it comes to winning the lean back computing space…for scoring on prom night as it were. This is my manifesto but you can use it too if you like.

What We Want: 

  • Single sign on & on-demand access to our on-prem media, our app-based subscription media (whether streamed live or stored in the cloud), and all other forms of content we legally are allowed access to from the couch
  • A comprehensible and consistent UI. Don’t ask me to jump in and out of different UIs, and don’t over-lay a nice XBox One or GoogleTV UI on top of a shitty Comcast DVR 8-bit color interface. Don’t piss on my leg and call it rain, in other words.
  • A f*(*#$  remote control that lasts. Sorry Microsoft, but my mother-in-law -64, speaks little English, cranky and paranoid (more on her later)- will never tell the XBox that she wants to watch HGTV. My wife will never lean back with a wireless Logitech keyboard either. My mom’s brain short-circuits if she has anything other than a Tivo remote. Do you hear me? Give the people what they want: A goddamned old fashioned normal clicker. The channel paradigm will not die; people still love to just lean back and ‘content-flip’ even today. The solution is not to hope such people die off, but to give them what they want.
  • Drop “HD” from everything. It’s not special anymore: There is no HD. There is only normal 1080p content and shitty, 20th century 480i content. I mean at some point we stopped talking about color tv right? You know what else was cool? Super VGA. How often do you think of Super VGA these days? You’re not fooling anyone Time Warner.
  • There is No TV or computer or tablet, there are only screens: Does it have pixels? Is it flat or slightly curved? Is it big and hung on the wall, medium and on a stand, or small and in my pocket? Does it emit light, have mass and require electricity? Is it matte plastic and warm, or cool and highly reflective? If yes to any of these, then I should be able to get to the content I want with no hassle or fuss on that screen. Just work baby, to borrow from Jobs & Al Davis
  • Fewer black boxes: My cell phone can do some amazing things. Take pictures. Record a video at 60 frames per second. Act as a flashlight. Show me my email. It can even talk to me and tell me where I’m at on the planet when I’m lost or confused. And guess what? It’s only a little bit taller than a deck of cards, and quite a bit thinner. It lasts all day on a battery and is discrete enough I can take it to the bathroom. It has no f$#$*( wires, which is still incredible to me. And as Louis CK said, it’s going to outer space.. It’s an amazing and wondrous device. So don’t expect me to be impressed by the eight pound metal box (whose volume is only 35% filled) and its four pound power brick that you’re trying to get me to put under my tv. I’m not. You know what gets me excited? Simplicity and fewer wires.

And because I’m a nice guy, here’s a helpful chart for Big Tech/Media/Last Mile providers to chew on as they role out their next bag of crap for us starting at CES 2014. Styled in an If This/Then That way, it’s designed to help Samsung or Google or Apple or Time Warner kill a lean back gadget while it’s still in its cradle so that you and I won’t have to deal with it when it drops into the living room, causing near-riotous conditions because the family hates switching inputs/doesn’t understand that concept:



Is this really too much to ask? I’m just about 85% towards realizing all these goals and avoiding all those pitfalls in the lists above, and I’m just an average-intelligence IT dork with a knack for finding open box items at Best Buy. I’m almost there…single pane of glass, single remote, single TV & box, no drama! I’ve got Windows Media Center + CableCARD + DVR for live TV, some goofy but earnest WMC plugins for Pandora, YouTube and such (no input switching finally!!!) I’ve got the family media on an SMB share on my little NAS which is indexed (rather poorly) by WMC, I’m putting together an OwnCloud instance for the mobile presentation of the same data, and I’ve got two mediums via which all this is moved to the end point device: good old Cat5e or 802.11n & ac on 2.4GhZ and 5GhZ respectively.

So close I can taste it. An end to the TV/VCR crutch. Just a few pieces out of place.

If I can do it with my limited resources -whilst building a lab across the same hardware mind you- why can’t these titans put something together?


Author: Jeff Wilson

20 yr Enterprise IT Pro | Master of Public Admin | BA in History | GSEC #42816 | Blogging on technology & trust topics at our workplaces, at our homes, and the spaces in between.

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