The MBEN Cometh

My significant other is nine years younger than I am, and no, I am not gloating. Much. In public. Anyway, we have much in common musically because I have always managed to keep up with what the kids are listening to (until recently because, Jesus God, what is that horrible racket?) but he has a much better handle on Gay Culture (Mommie Dearest, Sandra Bernhard, drag, the complete works of Erasure) than I do. I never kept up because I hid in the closet so long and never wanted to admit that, yes, I find the song “Chains of Love” almost absurdly good.

There are, however, moments that remind me that I am older than everyone else. And they are occuring with more alarming frequency of late as I attempt to keep up with what everyone else is talking about, and/or decifer the cool alt-culture references with which The Boy peppers his everyday conversation. (In all honesty, he’s an anomoly. I have never met anyone with a memory quite as thick and full and rich as his. He remembers everything, but somehow has to be reminded to turn off the bathroom light every time.)

For example, he’s a Stevie Nicks fanatic. Me, I make fun of her lamb-like caterwaul and weird witch-slash-crystal nonsense beliefs. However, for about three or four albums I really liked Fleetwood Mac and still think Lindsay Buckingham is a genius. Anyway, so we were talking about Stevie Nicks, or maybe he was, or maybe he was just re-enacting the treadmill/wind machine portion of the “Stand Back” video for me, and I had a memory spike about the first time I heard “Tusk,” on the radio. It was being piped over FM stereo into my brother’s Pioneer receiver via the TV cable he’d stuck in the back to get L.A. stations. KNX, I believe it was, a precursor to the whole dreadful Quiet Storm movement which spawned Sade (love her) and Phil Collins (admittedly, used to buy everything he pumped out, but now must admit to a grievous error in judgement on my part, save for “In The Air Tonight” and, with apologies, “One More Night”). The DJs, whether male or female, all spoke in hushed tones with deep voices like warmed-over syrup and every song got an intro so you knew who it was by and from what album.

Fleetwood Mac was following up its mega-million-selling blockbuster classic album “Rumours” with an ego-driven two-record set that the public was eagerly awaiting. It would prove to be their White Album, with every member making their own noise, and Buckingham more or less producing an entire solo album and folding his songs into the others. “Tusk,” the title song, was nothing at all like anything from Rumours. The vocals were hushed and over-layed with shouts and growls, the USC Trojan Marching Band had a cameo, there was an weird tribal drum break in the middle and then the chorus went on and on and on at the end, growing progressively noisier and more confusing and this, it was clear, was not your average Top 40 hit.

But then the memory, as memories do, segued into another one, becoming not so much about that song but about the Pioneer receiver and cable TV. Scott discovered quite by accident that the cable was delivering much more than TV channels from Los Angeles. At that time, there was no MTV or HBO or Ted Turner dreaming of video empires in Atlanta. When you signed up for cable, you got 13 channels instead of 3. Because 13 was as high as the TV dial would go.

Bakersfield had no independent TV channels, so the whole idea of TV that wasn’t courtesy the Big Three Networks (again, no Fox, no UPN, no The WB) was odd. What could they show? What did they even have? What, in fact, was the point?

Basically, on Basic Cable, we got three more network-based channels, 2, 4 and 7 (UHF). Plus Channel 5, home of endless Popeye and Three Stooges afternoons, Channel 9 which showed some local talk shows and lots of news, Channel 11, “Metromedia,” broadcasting lots and lots of old movies, Channel 10, aka PBS and home to Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Channel 13, which was like Channel 11 only less glossy, and Channel 12, on which everything was spoken in Spanish. Our local channels, 17, 23 and 29 (VHF) were put on channels 3, 6 and 8, respectively. We were the second family on the block to get cable TV, allowing us to take down the giant, ugly TV antenna on the roof and watch static-free, always-on, no-fine-tuning necessary television.

We’d later subscribe to The Movie Channel, then called Star Channel, which showed–you guessed it–first-run movies. And little by little, other new cable channels came into the living room. And then, voila, Los Angeles radio stations, too.

In those days, AM radio was for music. No one listened to FM radio. FM was about news and Classical music and lots of talking. It seems ludicrous that stereo was relegated to voices rather than popular music, but that was how it was. Then we discovered The Mighty MET and KNX and a dozen other FM stereo broadcasts coming from across the Sierra Nevadas and everything changed in a moment.

Music was coming into my house–in stereo.

Let me set the stage for where memory next takes us; There is no such thing as a “car stereo.” When you pause to think about it, that phrase describes the earth-shattering change that the new dashboard decks brought about to the whole driving and riding experience. Cars had no stereos–in fact, most homes had no stereos when I was a kid. I didn’t even know what “stereo” meant. Music and radio was coming into my life via tinny single speaker transistor radios or clock radios on the kitchen counter. Music sounded horrible, I just didn’t know it.

Then the world turned upside down when my neighbor sold us a Quadraphonic stereo cabinet set. Yes, weirdly, stereos were sold door-to-door (or something) like encyclopedias and Tupperware®. So my mom was over at the neighbor’s one evening hearing a demo of the new-fangled stereophonic hi-fi system. Everything in those days came in wooden cabinets. TV screens were encased with dark wood and velvet-covered speakers and glow-in-the-dark dials. Remote controls? What’re those? Long arms that reach out to turn the dial while you remain seated? How could a remote control fiddle with the fine-tuning, or adjust the hue and contrast every time you changed the channel? Pshaw, you’re dreaming, buddy!

The “stereo” came in four separate wooden cabinets that you were supposed to set up in four corners of a room. These were each 3-feet high, 4-feet wide and about 2-feet deep. They stood on four wooden legs to prop them about a foot off the floor. The fronts all looked the same, using this vaguely Spanish-grille thing over dark fabric-covered speakers. One speaker per cabinet. The main unit contained the radio tuner and the turntable. You could stack multiple albums on the turntable spindle and it could automatically feed them one at a time down the spindle so that the tone arm would automatically find the groove without you even lifting a finger!

With the stereo came a demo record that showcased the awe and wonder of full stereophonic sound. We also owned a couple of multi-album sets of orchestral music and, I believe, a copy of “Abbey Road.” The demo record was played endlessly for anyone willing to come into the family room to hear the majesty of real wood, cardboard, plastic grillwork and ruby-tipped needle. It included the sound of a ping-pong game, the sound of the ball disappearing from one speaker as it appeared all the way across the room as if by magic! You could also hear a car race from Monte Carlo, the sound of a Greek band (from Greece!) and dogs barking–in stereo!

This was all well and good, but it wasn’t until my brother purchased a set of Pioneer headphones, and these were huge mothers with giant half-balls that sat on your ears and a heavily padded headstrap and a thick, black, coiled cable leading to the shiny plug that went into the back of the main speaker with a satisfying click. Friend, when I placed those things on my head and he set the needle into the groove of Walter Carlos’s moog masterpiece “Switched-On Bach,” my brain exploded.

It was like seeing for the first time. It was taking the first breath of air ever in your life. It was fucking weird. Music was suddenly everywhere! It was dimensional and full and rich and bigger than life. I’m not sure I can even adequately express what that was like, going from holding a Sears transistor radio up to your ear to listen to Neil Young singing “Heart of Gold,” to the other-worldly sound of electronics breathing out “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

This was a certified Life Changing Moment.

Blink. Flash forward. He and I. Stereophonic sound. Cable TV. Stevie Nicks. The Internet. MP3. Quicktime. Plasma screens. HDTV. TiVo.

That’s when I finally, or suddenly, “got it.” What the whole convergence thing is, and what it means, and why it isn’t here yet. Stages upon stages. Learning and experiencing and understanding.

Where we are, is “not there yet.” Just as it took me years to get from 13 channels to Los Angeles FM to Air on a G String to “Tusk,” it will take a few more years to get to The Magic Box of Everything Now.

The MBEN is the thing that sits next to (or inside of) your television monitor. TV is, or won’t (or shouldn’t) be the screen and the tuner, TV is the monitor, like your computer monitor, only bigger. The MBEN has several ports on the back, some for audio, some for video, and some for info. You plug your info feed into the MBEN, and this might be your cable or your phone line or, somewhere in the not-too-distant future, your fiber. Everything comes through your info feed, TV signals, email, MP3s, on-demand streaming movies and sports, OS upgrades, everything, all the time.

The MBEN’s job is to sort it out, handle it, deliver it, and to do so automatically. You don’t have to get a bunch of different little boxes to store and sort through things. It has an audio/video tuner, an amp, a hard drive, everything necessary for you to do the things you want to do. You license the PS3 engine from Sony and put PS3 games in the DVD drive. Or download them from the Net. Or lease them from BLOCKBUSTER to play for a week. Your NetFlix membership allows you to trade movies virtually, no postage involved. You license the TiVo software to manage your TV viewing database, and use Strangeberry as a smart engine to tell what’s coming in your pipe and where to put it and manage everything else that’s going on through a single, simple, easy-to-use interface.

You can always add another hard drive to the MBEN, because it’s modular. You can replace the inputs when they upgrade the standards, pulling out the old digital ports (USB2) and plugging in the new ones (USB4). Your jukebox recognizes every type of format, from WAV to MP4 to Apple lossless, because the software automatically upgrades when necessary. When WiFi X comes out, you get upgraded with a software purchase. Your home network shares everything from your MBEN to every other “dumb” monitor in your house.

You already own a lot of DVDs and CDs in addition to your MP3 collection, but you don’t want to burn everything all over again. Fine, load the CD/DVD into the Disc reader (better yet, scan the UPC off the case), it tells the Net you own a copy, that means you can have a digital replacement, the MBEN downloads the albums off the web to your hard drive, or grants you access to the Universal Jukebox online for those titles. No more CDs. No more DVDs.

Bluetooth allows you to update your V6 iPod when you bring it into your house, because it starts talking to the MBEN when it enters your personal wireless network and tells it “I need updating with whatever music you downloaded today.” Your iCar stereo does the same thing from the garage, also getting map and construction schedule updates to your GPS system to aid your daily commute. Your Bluetooth-enabled phones all have the same personal directory listings because they all talk to each other, and to your MBEN.
You get the picture. I’ve seen this all before. Some things work and are successful (DVDS, Surround sound) and some things don’t and they die (8-Track, Quadraphonic sound). Often it’s a question of convenience and cost. Rarely is it a question of “understanding the technology.” You’re not supposed to understand it, you’re just supposed to use it. It therefore has to be usable, not simple.

So what’s standing in the way? Bandwidth, mostly. Over 50% of Americans now have Broadband Internet access, but for the MBEN to work, you need much, much more speed than that. Pretty much everything else is ready right now. Build a box, doesn’t really matter who does that, Sony or Dell or HP or Samsung, use Linux as the OS, build the other software on top, establish licensing fees on a monthly or yearly basis, voila.

Security is another issue, of course. Anything that’s Internet-based is open to security issues, so how secure is your personal wireless network, and how easy is it for someone else to grab your digital stuff? I’m literally thinking a lot of this up as I type and I know someone else with more skills and a better understanding of network and operating system security will have answers for that. Plus, the question of how much of the data lives on your local hard drive and how much lives out on the network is another interesting question, and in the end that doesn’t even matter. Maybe you buy the DVD insert at Best Buy and scan the code when you get home and the movie is already there. Maybe they scan it at Best Buy and the network has your wireless ID and the movie’s waiting for you. Maybe you buy the license at Amazon and print the booklet on your color printer and they deliver the movie at the same time.

Again, none of that matters. It doesn’t matter to you how any of it works, only that it does. This is an issue of trust. When ATMs first appeared, people didn’t use them because there was no person there handling their banking transactions. How could they trust that their deposit went to the right account? How do they know the money is really theirs? Most people I know today would rather deal with an impersonal ATM than a bank teller line any day. Time answers all questions. Convenience über alles.
I don’t expect to see a successful MBEN for at least 10 years. It’ll get here, and I suspect the cable companies will deliver it first as a super cable box and little by little, before we know it, the MBEN will be ensconced and then in step two we’ll just go buy an MBEN and plug the cable into the back without worrying about whether Denon’s box works with Time Warner or Dish Network or SBC.

Getting there will be fun, and there will be plenty of victims along the way. Microsoft may suffer because it’s trying to pose itself as the deliverer, but its OS is too filled with holes and it’s just way too big and nasty and stupid to do this, but it’s hard to laugh at $40 billion in the bank. Sony will likely trip because historically they want to be the maker of all things, but hardware is a commodity (no matter how well it’s designed) and they aren’t in the practice of licensing anything–they want to own it all. It’s hard to ignore the lessons of the Playstation juggernaut, though. TiVo is breaking away from the pack out of shear terror of losing it all and could come out above it all.

Samsung is hungry enough to innovate and give in when necessary. Toshiba is smart and agile, and IBM is constantly surprising though they tend to start in the boardroom and work out from there. Dell will be a follower, not a leader, which could serve them here as it did in the cheap PC arena. Intel might do something surprising, but they also tend to fail when it comes to entertainment over horsepower. Apple has always shown that it understands digital convergence, and if iPod proves anything it’s never to underestimate them, but they’re just too historically insular to take up the mantle. Can they create the MBEN from stem to stern and get buy-in from everyone else, or will they hold the cards to close to the vest and lose everything?

Meanwhile, there’s me, my cat, my computer, HTML, CSS, Las Vegas, a wedding in October, TiVo, “The Daily Show,” and the boy and his Stevie Nicks fixation. “Real savage like…”

September 17, 2004

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