Keep it simple: Easy to use is the TV challenge
Each week we ask chief technology officers and other high-profile tech decision-makers three questions.
This week, Paul Entwhistle, chief technology officer (CTO) of Pace, is providing the answers.
Pace plc is a leading technology developer for the global payTV industry, working across satellite, cable, IPTV and terrestrial platforms. The UK-based company employs over 2000 people in locations around the world, including France, the USA, India and China.
What's your biggest technology problem right now?
I think the biggest problem facing our industry is what I call delivering easy-to-use.
If you look at the consumer electronic devices that we all come across every day, they're becoming ever more complicated, and they're starting to be stuffed with more and more what I would call auxiliary features.
On the outside of the box they seem to promise a huge amount, but in my personal experience they tend to deliver just a little bit short of what the consumer is ultimately expecting.
I've got a couple of examples of this. My brother-in-law's internet had stopped working, and his internet modem had forgotten all its settings, so I tried to help him to fix it.
He'd also bought for the family a wireless networkable printer, which after one day of me reading blogs, and downloading patches, and changing drivers on his computers and laptops, he convinced me to put it back in the box, take it back to the shop and ask for our money back.
We got to the shop, and I got the impression that I wasn't the first person to actually do this.
I'm a technical guy, my background's engineering, I'm a technologist and I'm reluctant to be defeated by this - and yet we still had to put it back in the box and take it back to the shop.
I bought a Blu-Ray player. They come networkable now, so you can connect them to your home network, and of course Blu-Ray picture quality is absolutely fantastic.
I thought "great " - I can connect it to the network, I can find my home photos and music and I can watch that through my television.
I've got the same brand of laptop at home, it's already connected to the network and it's already got software on it, and I thought this is going to be really good.
I got it all up and running in that kind of geeky, it's amazing it actually really works kind of way. It all worked, and then a couple of days later a message pops up on my computer screen that says, "would you like to update your software?".
I said yes, and the whole thing stops working. I'm probably facing another weekend's worth of trying to untangle all the software to get us back to where we were.
What we're finding now is that as consumer electronic devices are becoming more complicated, beyond the function that they naturally do, they're actually very difficult on the whole to get working in the home.
What's the next big tech thing in your industry?
Professionally I'd call it convergence, I think the end user would call it convenience.
What I mean by that, I think that if you take a step back and take a look at our business, which is subscription TV, it's for a long time been a pioneer and innovator for new television services.
It brought us a huge amount of choice when digital came in. I think there was truly an epiphany when the personal video recorder came out.
You sat there and said, I can rewind a live broadcast - it was incredible. And now you've got what I would call a truly cinematic experience in your home from high definition.
That's what's happened. So what's next?
I think you look at blending broadband and broadcast together, and see what will come from that.
I think what the end user will start to expect is when you ask, when do you want something and they say now, they really mean now. It's not that I forgot to record it, I missed it on the plus one hour, in fact what I want to do is watch yesterday's TV today.
We're starting to see more and more things like catch-up TV being delivered over the internet, but actually watched on your television.
And if you still don't think you've got enough choice, you no longer will have to go the supermarket to buy a DVD or go out and rent one, you'll be able to access it delivered over the internet.
And for Pace, more and more of our customers, they're making their portfolio content available on demand, accessible over the internet straight through an easy to use set top box.
What's the biggest technology mistake you've ever made - either at work or in your own life?
I have to chose this one carefully! I'd describe it as a handful of small, pit-of-the-stomach incidents rather than a big mistake.
In the early 90s before I joined Pace, I was a design engineer designing high performance and high reliability computer systems, particularly for the space industry.
One such system, that I had used all my clever skills to optimise for a manufacturer, was measuring the plasma position in a thermo-nuclear reactor, which didn't quite work properly. But we managed to sort it out before anything happened.
The other incident that really sticks in my mind was when one of our chip suppliers had a problem with a chip they'd been developing for us.
Hundreds of engineers had been developing this for some time. it was a complete showstopper, we weren't going to be able to use this chip because of this problem and there was nothing that they could come up with to solve it.
I'd come up with this clever idea on how to fix this, and we designed a companion chip to run alongside it. Of course is was really urgent, we had to get this chip out really fast, we'd tested it the designed and simulated it, and all the things we had to do. We ordered 25,000 pieces straight off.
A month later they arrived, we put one on the board and it didn't work.
What had happened was that one absolutely tiny little last minute change we'd made was wrong. I was lucky in that instance that we found a way to compensate for it.
What I learnt personally was that despite my best intentions and inventiveness, my attention detail sometimes would occasionally fall below 100%, and that's happened a couple of times during my engineering career.