The Flashing Clock Conspiracy

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As I was driving to the office the other day I glanced at my iPhone and then back up to the dash, noticing that the clock in my car was a couple minutes off. ‘Gah! Why can’t the clock in my car keep time?’ This got me thinking about all of the devices in my life that have clocks built-in and the constant need to set and re-set them.

The proverbial “Big Bang” in the clock setting drama was when the very first VCR in the world was plugged in and it’s built-in clock started flashing “00:00”. After that the flashing clock syndrome has become a part of pop-culture and the problem has proliferated. Whenever there is a power outage, or electrical work requiring a breaker to be turned off in the house, I find myself asking the same question, “Why don’t these clocks synchronize themselves?” So I took a look at the evolution of time synchronization up to now.

  • Radio Broadcasters have been getting time, among other signals, from the US Atomic Clock since NIST began broadcasting time within radio signals across the US in 1945
  • In 1974, NIST began broadcasting time from NOAA satellites
  • In 1988, NIST began offering network time (Telephone and later Internet based)
  • In 1994, the GPS Satellite system became fully operational and due to it’s heavily reliance on accurate time, it became another source of very accurate time. Even cheap handheld GPS receivers get their time directly from the GPS satellites.
  • Mobile phones have been getting their time from the cellular network since at least the 90’s. Today’s smartphones and tablets use both the cellular network as well as Internet time (NTP) similar to personal computers.
  • Windows (Since Windows 2000), Mac (Since Mac OS 9 mainly), and Unix/Linux computers can set their own time from the network (NTP).

So as I look at all of the clocks I have in my life, I’m left wondering why I still have to set their time manually. For example…

  • My 4-year old BMW 535i has a built-in cellular radio, GPS receiver, satellite radio antenna, Bluetooth, and a fiber-optic ring network connecting every electronic device together. It can send all sorts of data to BMWAssist in the event of a crash or need for assistance, and it can download traffic data from radio signals. With all these systems available and integrated together, it can’t figure out the time?
  • Our Panasonic TV has Ethernet and Wi-Fi connectivity to connect to services like Netflix, Skype, Facebook, etc. Why doesn’t it use the same NTP servers as my Mac and Windows computers to get the time?
  • Our Keurig coffee maker has a clock so that it warms up the boiler in the morning before I wake up. The warm up feature is great but we unplug the Keurig sometimes to plug in other small appliances and then the clock needs to be set again when it’s plugged back in or it won’t warm up. Why not integrate a Bluetooth or small Wi-Fi receiver to get network time?
  • The Logitech Harmony Remote control we have in the living room has USB, RF, and Infrared and a clock that is NEVER correct. Hey Logitech, add a Wi-Fi radio, ditch the USB connection, let me program the remote over Wi-Fi, and sync the time automatically.

Actually, these last three got me thinking, consumer electronics manufacturers should come up with an industry standard way for all devices to talk to each other via a cheap, short range, low-bandwidth wireless connection (Bluetooth anyone?). It could be a sort of mesh-network where each device can communicate with the next closest device to get access to other devices in the home, and they could all share information that each device might be authoritative for. One device might be a network connected Blu-Ray player that knows the time. Other devices might know what time you wake up in the morning (the Keurig for example) and provide that information so that the cable box knows to set the channel to the morning news before you even turn on the TV. And synchronize all of the clocks!!!

But then, I have to wonder why some devices even need a clock?

I understand why the oven has a clock since it has the ability to start cooking on a schedule, but why the microwave? Most microwaves don’t have any sort of start-timer function, so why do they need a clock? There are already so many clocks in the house; I’d argue that adding one to a device that doesn’t need it is just creating an undue burden on the user. For the love of Pete! If there is no reason for it, and it doesn’t set itself, leave the clock out!

What say you?