We’re done with 2010 and off to 2011 with CES, the Consumer Electronics Show. Still hungover from New Year festivities, hordes of exhibitors, store owners, and civilians brave one another and the refined Las Vegas culture in order to show off and ogle the latest gotta-have-it gadgetry.

Once upon a time, the computer industry’s signal event was the NCC, which then morphed into the now-deceased Comdex. Las Vegas cab drivers made no secret of their low regard for us dull computer types: We didn’t know how to have fun. Ah, car dealer conventions… Those guys knew how to enjoy Vegas.

Sympathetic barkers tried to lift our mood. As we streamed out of the exhibition halls at the end of a Comdex day, they plied us with cards advertising choice local businesses and practitioners: ‘Boom boom in the ROM!’ Others were magicians who offered to ‘Change your software into hardware’.

Today, computers, the old kind, are out. Consumer Electronics are in. Actually, computers still reign. They’ve taken over, infiltrated, become the soul of Consumer Electronics. Why do you think Apple dropped the ‘Computer‘ from its name? And why do Microsoft bosses, first Gates and now Ballmer, give the opening Sunday night keynote address? Obligingly, the other Wintel half follows. Intels’ CEO (Paul Otellini after years of co-founder Andy Grove in the role) treats us to nice slides chockfull of nanometers, gigahertz, and everything converged, obediently toeing the MS line.

Computers still rule, but things have changed. We now have these mobile and really personal computers, smartphones and tablets. In that arena, Microsoft and Intel no longer have the power to tell us what to think and what to do, although it won’t stop them from trying. Ballmer will show more tablets…just like last year, only better! And, just like last year, Intel will insist that they now have the right x86 processors for mobile applications.

But minds and wallets have moved on. ARM and Android are everywhere, from GPS devices to home theaters, smartphones, tablets, Internet TVs, and set-top boxes. Even Microsoft-powered Windows Phone devices aren’t using Intel processors: HTC, Samsung and others aren’t suicidal.

So it’s BS as usual, but with a twist: This is The Year of The Tablet. No self-respecting manufacturer will dare show up without a tablet. Pardon, a tableau of tablets, a full Kama Sutra of hardware and software configurations: keyboard or not, touch, pen, Android, mobile Linux derivatives, WebOS, Windows 7 adapted for tablets, ARM or Intel processors.

And, of course, Apple will be absent, preferring to run its own course unencumbered by a trade show organizer and a mess of noisy exhibitors. Results support their consistent “Think Different” mantra. [Update: the cheeky Apple event schedulers have chosen January 6th, the opening day of CES, to launch their Mac App Store.]

All well and good…but one protocol will be missing.

This being the Consumer Electronics Show, we’ll see a flood of new and improved entertainment devices, TVs, home theaters systems, security cameras and other home control products. All of which have a terrible time talking to one another and being centrally controlled, or even simply controlled. Why do you think they make baskets for remotes?

Controlling these devices from one remote is too complicated and expensive. I know a learned high-tech exec with unimpeachable command-line credentials who gave up trying to program a single remote for his home theater. He says he’d rather learn how to use each remote to turn the proper device on and off, set the channel, select the right source or program the PVR.

If you’re geeky—and lucky and take rejection well—you might be able to program a “unified” gadget, a “meta-remote”, one that will learn the right code sequences for all your devices. My suggestion is to get a Logitech Harmony device. (Disclosure: Although I used to be a Logitech director, I left the board about ten years ago and don’t own stock in the company, or in any other while we’re on the topic of possible financial interests.)

The Harmony product line comes in (too) many flavors—ironic, given the stated purpose of simplification. Stick with the Harmony One, it abandons the old ways in which the boss remote “learns” from each individual remote or, worse, where you have to pore through cryptic manuals and manually enter codes for each command. With the Harmony One, you use a Windows/Mac application connected to a Logitech server to describe your devices (make and model) and then you set up activities: Watch TV, Watch a DVD, Listen to Music, use your Apple TV (which Logitech quaintly categorizes as a Media Center PC). The server knows (almost) every device code and talks to the local application which programs the remote for you.

I’m not crazy about Harmony’s desktop app UI nor about the fact that the remote apparently needs to reboot its own little embedded computer after each programming session. Why not just update a configuration file and go? So it’s not perfect, but it works better than anything else…unless you’re prepared to move into a different league and get a professional installation—and a service contract.

Skipping through this klutz’s errors and tribulations, and assuming we now have correct setup, everything works smoothly, right?

Not quite.

You tap the Watch TV activity on the remote’s little touch screen. No TV. Tap the Help button and it takes you through a sequence of questions: Is the PVR on? No. The remote attempts to turn it on. Did this solve the problem? No. Is the TV input switched to HDMI 1? No, it was left on HDMI 2 by the previous activity. The remote attempts to cycle through the sequence of HDMI inputs because this particular TV doesn’t have a command to go directly to HDMI 1.

In other words, the remote flies blind. It has no way to determine the state of the devices it’s attempting to control. Commands are one-way messages, no dialog, no feedback. Some commands, such as On/Off, are toggles: There aren’t separate On and Off commands, just one to switch states. That’s what the TV or receiver knows and that’s what the remote has to work with. If someone had the primitive impulse to turn the TV on manually, the remote turns it off when you ask it to turn it on. Hence the clever but pained process in the Harmony’s error recovery checklist.

In an alternate universe, you take your remote, approach the device you want to control and press the Talk To Me button. The TV answers with a bitstream describing its make, model, commands, and current status. The remote then talks to your computer, or smartphone, or directly to the Net and gets the right programming code for the device. When you tap Watch TV, each concerned device, the set-top box, the TV, the receiver for better sound, acknowledges receipt and execution of the command, or else provides an error message.

Why can’t TVs, receivers and DVD players answer questions? Some devices have Ethernet or even WiFi connections and they all contain one or more micro-controllers, but they still resist interrogation. How hard would it be to program a device to provide some feedback? I’d be happy with simpler Infrared or RF (radio) exchanges.

That’s the missing protocol. Today’s consumer devices aren’t deaf, but they’re dumb. They need to talk back.

JLG@mondaynote.com

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