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Organizing the digital mega-library

A few weeks back I wrote a bit about our new supra-digital entertainment nexus station, also known as The Blu-Raya Playa. After some more time basking in its HDMI greatness, I have a few more reflections that seem, in natural blog law, to require public consideration.

First, a disclaimer: The audio portion of our “home theater,” such as it is, consists of an eight year-old Sherwood receiver that I still maintain is an extraordinarily good buy for 2002, what with its DTS and coax and optical audio inputs and 5.1 downmixing and full LRF support. It’s connected to the bookshelf speakers that I bought in 1994 to take to college, so when I say that the audio from the Serenity blu-ray is totally sweet, you should take my word for it, because I’m not one of those nutjobs who pays $800 for neutrally-balanced balsawood volume knobs.

Right, with that out of the way, the Sony N460 remains a very satisfying little piece of equipment, but I do have a few thoughts about the whole “online digital library” thing.

First, a better remote would be nice. This one’s a little lightweight in heft. Also, for a device that can stream internet music services, a RF remote would be slick — no line-of-sight requirement to make selections. In the dare-to-dream category would be a smart remote with a display to control services like last.fm or pandora from the kitchen. Oooh, iPhone app. Ooooh, iPad app, yes.

Second, every video service is walled off from the rest. Online video is organized by service, not content or category or keyword. I want to aggregate it all up into folders or buckets of some kind. I’d settle for getting this for Netflix only (though being able to roll-up rentals or purchases from Amazon on Demand, too, would be way cool). The current display is just a tile of little tiny cover displays — scrolling through brings up a larger display of title. How excellent it would be to be able to organize all those little pictures of DVD covers, into TV and sci-fi and “serious melodrama” and “re-runs of The Shield.”

Here’s why categorization matters so much: I find I’m really making a library out of the Netflix instant queue, dropping into it movies I’ve been before, movies I’ve heard about, movies I might watch someday, and even documentaries. Previously, the Netflix Instant queue was a list of things tagged, essentially, “I want to watch this.” But having all that material in a device permanently connected to the TV changes that dramatically. It’s not a queue so much as a “I love this or I think it’s cool or I remember watching it in college or I might watch this one day” list. And therefore it’s not a list; it’s a library, and that library needs organizing. And all that stuff? It needs organizing.

The digital mega-library needs organizing, one way or another. Netflix could send category information to these devices, for example, or could allow users to attach keywords; devices could do anything with this information: display tag clouds or let users navigate the categories of video they’ve dropped into the queue, or build sparklines of keyword frequencies or … well, you get it. I think Netflix must ultimately be headed for this kind of system, but its usability will depend on device-level implementation.

[ update: Boxee may present a partial solution here, as the new version claims to be able to better organize material across services. Not having tried it out for quite a while, I downloaded the current release and gave it a go. I do have to say that it’s really slick, and must faster than the prior version I had used for a while. And there is some hint of cross-service integration: Searching for Chuck for example reveals streams from NBC.com and from Hulu; but searching for Doctor Who, which is represented by half a dozen entries in my instant Netflix queue, turns up nothing, so the integration is at best still only partial. But Boxee does have the most complete overall set of services, so the upcoming Boxee box is most definitely worth watching as an alternative to dedicating a PC to the TV. ]

And the day I can get to all the stuff I’ve queued, rented, and/or bought — via keyword, or actor, or ranking, or genre — without having to back out three menus and find another service? That will be Unification Day, and it will rock. Apple TV, I’m looking at you, though if Sony could do this with some sweet firmware updates to the box we already own, well I’d seriously consider a Vaio. Cross my heart.