Hub of a Connected Home: To PC or Not to PC

A new generation of connected entertainment devices is appearing this year, and many of those devices seek to usurp control of digital media tasks from the PC and move them into your living room. I can understand why many people want to enjoy digital photos and movies on their TV, which is usually much bigger than their PC monitor. Likewise, stereo systems in people's living rooms are often more powerful than the speakers connected to their PCs and are in a more central spot in the home. No wonder many companies—including some PC companies, incidentally—have introduced products that work with TV and stereo technologies and, in many cases, obviate the need for a PC. However, pushing the PC out of the picture is often an extreme step that's not necessarily the best way to go. The following are some emerging digital media strategies to consider.

Apple's Digital Hub Strategy

In Apple Computer's view of the world, PCs and televisions will never meet. Apple CEO Steve Jobs says people turn themselves off when they sit in front of a TV but expect to interact and engage themselves while using a PC. Thus, the company has launched a campaign to position its Macintosh products as the center of a digital hub in which users process audio, video, and photos on their Mac, then connect to the Internet and devices such as portable audio players and CD-RW and DVD-R drives. The idea is that the Mac is the central connection point for all devices and tasks.

The problems with this approach are many. First, this strategy is highly derivative of similar Microsoft and Intel strategies, which reach far more users, making it hard for Apple to differentiate its products. The strategy highlights, rather than obscures, the fact that Apple's solutions are generally far less viable than Wintel-based solutions. Second, this strategy ignores the fact that people have historically enjoyed music, photos, and movies in locations other than the home office. Apple offers no way for people to view photos or movies on a TV or listen to their digitally recorded music collections on a home stereo. The Mac's small market share reflects these limitations. Because the Mac market doesn't have the PC market's huge infrastructure—or ecosystem, to use a recent Microsoft term—living-room solutions are hard to find or nonexistent in the Mac world.

Don't take my criticisms as a damnation of the Mac, however. Apple's digital movie and music applications—iDVD, iMovie, and iTunes—are first-rate, and its iPhoto digital photo application shows promise. People who choose the Mac generally do so for specific reasons, and lack of support or options has never hindered these users in the past. But PC users have few reasons to even consider the Mac at this time, unless you find the company's digital video applications particularly compelling.

The Post-PC Strategy: Connected Entertainment Devices

You might expect companies that have no stake in the PC market to look at the emerging digital-media market and come up with devices that preclude the need for a PC at all. Many companies attempted to do just that by developing non-PC Internet access devices, including Web pads, Internet appliances, and MSN Companion devices. This time around, however, many of the companies working on living room-based connected entertainment devices are PC makers, although the products they're selling are standalone devices that work sans PC. Perhaps they just want to capture a wider market than that afforded by PC users alone.

In any event, connected entertainment devices share some common features. They look like any other home stereo component and interact with users through a small LCD display and a remote control. They offer a CD-RW drive and hard disk (usually 20GB to 40GB) for recording digital audio from audio CD-ROMs and for creating audio-mix CDs. Some of these devices include USB ports for connectivity with portable digital audio devices, and all of them offer Internet connectivity through a modem, Ethernet, or Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA) phone-line networking connection.

Compaq and Hewlett-Packard (HP) are two PC makers that offer such devices (Compaq's iPAQ Music Center and HP's Digital Entertainment Center), and other companies such as SONICblue and Moxi Digital are introducing units this year; the Moxi Media Center will purportedly add digital video recording (DVR) capabilities as well. But the problem with these devices is their price; the average price is about $1000. For $1000, you can purchase an amazingly powerful Windows XP-based Pentium 4 PC that does so much more than these devices; this problem is the same one that doomed the previous generation of non-PC Internet access devices.

The PC Plus Strategy

For the past year or so, Microsoft has been touting its own strategy for making the PC the center of your home devices, and I think the company's ideas currently make the most sense. Dubbed "PC Plus" by Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates, this strategy envisions a Windows-based PC as the center of the connected home, which sounds similar to Apple's strategy (although, to be fair, Microsoft was there first). But Microsoft recognizes that the PC isn't always the best output device for digital media tasks, and the company even created a new eHome division to come up with complementary technologies that will move computing out of the home office and into other areas of the home.

Microsoft revealed the first eHome technologies at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2002, and they're exciting. Microsoft Freestyle provides a simple and elegant front end to accomplish digital media tasks such as playing music and viewing video and photos. Freestyle lets you use a standard remote control to interact with your PC while using your TV as a display device. Microsoft expects manufacturers to release a new generation of PCs soon, offering cheap prices and stereo component-like form factors, which will make them perfect for inclusion in the living room. And because the units are full PCs, you can connect them to other PCs in the home and leverage the hard disk space and digital media files you already own.

Another eHome technology, Microsoft Mira, adds remote-display capabilities to a new generation of primary and secondary displays scheduled for shipment in time for the 2002 holiday buying season. Primary Mira displays—typically 15" LCD flat panels—will replace your existing display wherever your primary PC is located, such as in the home office. However, you'll be able to pick up the display and walk around the house with it; the display communicates with your desktop PC through an 802.11b-based wireless connection and XP's Remote Desktop feature. You use a stylus and onscreen keyboard to interact with the display, similar to the way Pocket PCs work. You'll be able to use Mira's smaller secondary displays—which will be 8" to 10"—in other rooms of the home, so you might store one in your bedroom or living room. In the future, TVs and other devices will include Mira technology.

Mira and Freestyle will ship with XP Service Pack 1 (SP1), which is due in September or October. If you're an XP user, I recommend waiting for these technologies before you decide on a living room and digital media integration strategy. For more information about these exciting technologies, check out my Technology Showcase on the SuperSite for Windows.

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