The Future of the Home Entertainment PC

In a series of columns this month, we started out by talking about the future of desktop computers, moved to laptops, and we’ll conclude by talking about the future of convergence, or the melding of the PC and consumer electronics (CE) industries into what is hoped will be a compelling set of products for the home.

Let’s start with a refresher on where all the players stand.

The CE Industry: Clueless on Standards

The CE industry has had a hard time with standards. Each manufacturer has its own specialty and few components work well with products from other companies. CE products have a mixed ease-of-use record. The most famous problem is probably the VCR which had the ability to time-shift programming but was so difficult to program that few could ever eliminate the flashing “12:00” that designated the clock had never been set.

The most obvious evidence of how bad this is appears at the back of any receiver. Often these look more complex than a small company’s wiring closet — a wiring closet is where the network, telephony and some electrical cables are routed to and — using the term loosely — organized.

This is partly why people tend not to replace their CE products very often. Typically, these products have an eight-year service life. And seldom do they use all of the features they paid extra to purchase. In addition, remote controls tend to proliferate like wayward rabbits because, outside of “universal” remotes, one control seldom works with anything but its chosen hardware.

However, out of the box, once you get the stuff installed, it is relatively simple to use initially. Usability issues tend to increase dramatically as you add accessories.

The PC Industry: Clueless on Ease of Use

The PC industry has a hard time with usability. Products often require users be tech experts and learn various user interfaces, networking skills and system administration skills. However, standards do exist and controls like keyboards and mice remain constant across the family. While CE hardware is instantly on, PC hardware is anything but and often turns itself off as a result of needing to apply a software patch or a “crash” — neither of which exists in most CE hardware.

The most obvious example of this usability problem is on home wireless networking equipment which generally requires extensive technical knowledge to set up securely, often needs to be flashed to work properly and is generally not set up optimally as a result.

This may be the reason that people are generally dissatisfied with their PC-related products and why they often migrate to shelves in the garage or basement, are put up for sale on eBay or are returned to the store for some other poor fool to try.

However, generally, once you learn one product you tend to know them all because there is a high degree of consistency. In addition, while initial complexity is high, it doesn’t increase very much as you add components which tend to work under the same, now known, user interface.

The Goal

The goal in a product designed to take the best of both of these worlds, a process called convergence, is to have an offering that embodies the initial ease of use of CE products with the standards orientation of PC products to create an easy-to-use, standard offering.

Existing products that currently meet this standard are the Apple iPod, the Sonos music system and the TiVo personal video recorder. Each of these products pulls concepts from both the CE and the PC side to create something that is better than either on its own, and is compelling to the user. The iPod further showcases the power of a strong, successful marketing campaign to drive buyers to what was a new platform when it launched.

But each of these is a limited device and promise of the PC side is something much larger — something we have called a “Media Center” in the past and something that is still evolving.

What Is the Media Center Today?

Today the Media Center PC, which is largely driven by Microsoft and some key partners, most notably Intel and HP, is more PC than CE. It doesn’t yet embody the initial ease of use of a CE product, it still makes you feel way too much like a systems administrator, and, in most configurations, it still looks like — and is — a PC.

It will distribute music, but it won’t multi-cast like the Sonos. It will feed handheld music systems but the iPod won’t work with it (HP tried, Apple didn’t help, HP gave up). It will play movies but can’t receive high-definition content unless it comes over an antenna (cable and satellite high-definition TV won’t work). It is relatively expensive in its current form. CE hardware gets interesting under US$300; fully functional Media Center PCs start at about twice that. In short, it is a PC with CE functionality, but it is still clearly showing its PC roots and disadvantages.

Of the Media Center PCs, the HP comes closest to the ideal. It looks like a CE device and HP has gone the extra yard to eliminate some of the more annoying PC behaviors, like virus checker warnings popping up in the middle of watching a movie. In addition, Microsoft recently released a Media Center keyboard that vastly improves the Media Center experience and makes you look at the system differently. It has the controls where they should be and, particularly for non-HP Media Center PCs, greatly improves the overall experience. But it clearly doesn’t eliminate the PC-centric impression of the product.

The Future

The Media Center PC should be an instant-on device that is power-efficient. Current products suck way too much power and generate way too much heat. They should also be very easy to use and set up, and should have an acceptable entry price. On this last factor there clearly can be more expensive and more advanced hardware, but, to get the market to accept the platform in the first place, there needs to be a better entry offering.

Specifically with regard to setting the product up, the amplifier should be part of the device, and it should connect wirelessly and automatically with as many peripherals as possible. These would include the primary display — particularly if it was wall-mounted — the surround speakers and any remote music distribution device. In short, it should be modeled after the Sonos, but extend to its full potential.

Content needs to flow in easily and consistently so the user can have a Netflix-like experience and get access to the programming he/she wants, as opposed to the very limited libraries and horrid user interfaces we generally have today.

Finally, it will need to encompass gaming and voice (VoIP) communication because both are increasingly becoming a part of the new digital home and showcase the advantages of a PC-centric Media Center. It will also encompass home automation and provide a secure safe repository for your media files including home movies and pictures.

In an effort to get to this point, Intel last week launched its Viiv platform, initially with Microsoft. Viiv, which is to home-based PC entertainment what Centrino was to mobile WiFi computing, is the company’s next big move into the home — they have their “A-team” on the project. However, Viiv is a much more daunting challenge than Centrino ever was because so much of the problem does not currently belong to Intel. Content, operating system, and retail issues belong to others and currently aren’t within Intel’s control. However, Intel is clearly trying to take the lead here, suggesting that partners may change if the solution requires it.

Getting It Right

In conclusion, the future of the Media Center is a series of devices working seamlessly together to give you the content you want where you want it. Interestingly enough, Intel showcased such a system during their CEO’s keynote last week in what was one of the most compelling videos I’ve ever seen on the subject. Now they “just” need to make that dream a reality before the cable guys do.

If the different parties can’t resolve their differences, the cable and satellite industry will solve the problem and the future Media Center will be a set-top box on steroids. This will mean a hardware model that is much less lucrative for hardware and software vendors, providing fewer choices for consumers with a higher inherent cost. However, it will just work, and, in the end, that is still all the consumer really wants.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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