Move the Media Block?

by Michael Karagosian
©2009 MKPE Consulting LLC All rights reserved worldwide
originally published in the 15 July 2009 issue of Digital Cinema Report

Digital cinema's greatest challenge is its cost. The cinema marketplace isn't big enough to allow the scale of manufacturing needed to produce equipment inexpensively. To get the benefit of scale, components need to be off-the-shelf. In other words, they need to be useful for things other than digital cinema. Of course, the stumper is that if digital cinema were off-the-shelf, the cinema experience wouldn't be unique.

So it's a rare and valuable opportunity when a system architecture emerges that begs for off-the-shelf components. This is precisely the direction the industry can move in with the trend to put the media block inside the projector. The media block contains all of the unique hardware required by DCI-compliant digital cinema. By moving this component into the projector, and out of the server, the system architecture is greatly simplified. Most notably, the server can now be an off-the-shelf device, purchased and managed by an IT department. For those without an IT department, it means you can buy the server off the web directly through companies such as Dell, HP, or IBM, with all of the associated cost savings. Given that the components unique to digital cinema will be inside the projector, it's easy to see which vendors are going to lead this trend.

With media block in the projector, and off-the-shelf components outside the projector, one might think that there could be industry agreement on the link that connects the two. The idea is so obvious that I have been receiving emails from more than one proponent suggesting industry activity to reach such an agreement. It follows, then that this subject was raised in a recent industry meeting. But surprisingly, the idea of a common link was met with strong pushback from certain companies. It was as if the lessons of the past 30 years of failed technology ventures were thrown out the window. It's time to review those lessons.

The computer industry graveyard is abundant. Great names such as Digital Equipment Corporation, Data General, Tandem Computers, and Wang stand out among the dearly departed. While the legacy of some of these companies still lives in product lines now absorbed by survivors, these are not growing markets. This was not always so. These companies were kings of proprietary hardware. At one time, great marketing stands were made for their proprietary designs. But they also met their fates by hanging onto the religion of proprietary design and not responding to major shifts in the market. Their lessons are for all who venture in technology.

Stepping into the present, there is a different set of examples I can point to. The history of the desktop computing platform provides tremendous insight into how digital cinema equipment will likely evolve. The two leaders in the desktop area, Apple and Microsoft, offer platforms that are both successful and uniquely different. Most interesting is that both now utilize the same CPU, underscoring the evolution in computing away from specialized hardware that buried so many bodies in the computer industry graveyard. Regardless of one's personal preference of desktop computer, it is the shared success and widely different market approach of these two companies that is worth understanding.

Apple is the epitome of the vertical integrator. Its hardware and software platforms are highly developed largely through in-house engineering. To succeed, it has to be excellent in all aspects of its product, both hardware and software. Apple would be joining so many former peers in the graveyard if its software was sloppy, or if its hardware wasn't the best. To be sure, this approach has not led to Apple's win of a majority of the market. But Apple clearly understands the key to success as a vertically integrated product manufacturer.

Microsoft took a different approach in its pursuit of success. Microsoft focused on serving the business community with strictly software. Its hardware platform was open, and while initiated by IBM, the competitive nature of "clones" ensured that market penetration was deep. Microsoft's success is in large part due its ability to provide a software platform that meets the needs of its sizeable target market, as well as its efforts to encourage the ubiquitous hardware to run it.

Each of these strategies is mirrored in the emerging architecture of digital cinema systems. Sony Electronics, as a projection technology provider, is going down the vertically integrated path. Its key to success will be to follow Apple's lead in becoming excellent in every way possible, from TMS and SMS, to its projection hardware. The other projector technology provider, Texas Instrument's DLP Cinema™, is going down the open architecture route, allowing 3rd party media block hardware and software to plug in. Considering the usual evolution of technology, and a strong market demand for the lowest cost solution, it won't be long before the plug-in hardware becomes a pure commodity, "clone" media blocks if you will, and the software is the only differentiator. This is the Microsoft model.

These models will serve well for those exhibitors formulating their future purchasing strategy. By understanding them, one should be able to navigate towards the long term solution that meets your company's needs. Remember that success in the marketplace is not about religion, it's about being excellent in one's game. I take no pleasure in pointing out that we already have a few bodies in the digital cinema graveyard, and more will likely be buried. Both Apple and Microsoft avoided the graveyard and achieved great success by correctly understanding their game and playing it well. We could use a little more of that understanding in digital cinema.