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PC Makers Attack the Living Room

Automobile enthusiasts remember a day when you could open up the hood of any car, fiddle around with a few simple tools, and get the engine purring again. Heck, I was never very mechanically inclined, but I once kept my first car—a 1972 Volkswagen Super Beetle—running by jamming a cassette tape case into the engine. Sure, the engine gunned, but the quick fix got me where I wanted to go. Today, I drive a similar car—a 2000 Volkswagen New Beetle—that has absolutely nothing to do, mechanically, with the original Beetle. It's powered by a complex, modern engine that is controlled by computers and requires a professional mechanic with computerized tools. But the payback is the amenities. In the new car, you can get heated leather seats, a six-speaker stereo system with a CD changer, and a turbo-charged engine. Having spent too many winter nights knocking my knees together in the heat-challenged original Beetle, I'll take the New Beetle any day.

A similar revolution is happening in our living rooms. That old standard—the tube-based NTSC television set, with its abstract notion of screen resolution (supposedly 525 lines horizontally by ... something)—is quickly fading as we move into an era of flat-panel displays based on a variety of technologies. These displays offer massive resolutions that rival those of powerful high-end PC monitors. That comparison isn't a coincidence; these monitors will essentially be used to display computer-based signals. They often provide 16:9 widescreen aspect ratios, rather than the more traditional 4:3 shape we grew up with, offering wide vistas of viewing pleasure that are comparable to the best movie theater experiences.

And the TV is no longer a standalone entity. For people my age and older, the TV set has been what I call an island of functionality—a device of singular purpose that doesn't connect to other devices or services. In the age of the PC, however, that's all changing. One thing the PC industry has done well is prove that versatile devices—those that offer multiple forms of functionality—win out over single-use devices. That trend has already repeated itself in several markets recently, and it almost always seems to happen when the devices themselves become computerized. As an obvious example, consider the cell phone. Originally conceived as a mobile supplement to terrestrial-based phones, cell phones quickly escaped niche status to become a token accessory for everyone but the smallest children. Today, you can use your cell phone to play video games, take and store digital photos, manage personal information, send and receive text messages, and perform other duties. I'm pretty sure you can use the cell phone to make phone calls, too.

In the living room, a similar transformation is occurring. In the 1980s and 1990s, the VCR reigned supreme, although that device didn't change the TV's status as an island of functionality: You still had to sit in front of the TV to enjoy content recorded on the VCR. And because the tapes were physically large, a market for portable VHS players never evolved. When consumer-oriented camcorders became popular, VHS was quickly left behind. Compatibility problems arose, further lengthening the time necessary to move out of the analog age. If anything is true of the VHS era, it's this: The new era of digital recording will be marked by far more rapid change than we experienced between 1980 and 2000. Also, the new devices will connect to everything and anything.

The device that kickstarted this new era is the TiVo, although that device started out as merely a digital version of a VCR, with limited modem connectivity for downloading program guides. Today, the TiVo and other digital video recorders (DVRs, or personal video recorders—PVRs) are multimedia marvels, able to connect over a home network to digital photos and music stored on PCs. You can now enjoy your digital content in your living room, rather than the sterile confines of your home office. TiVo isn't alone in this endeavor—in fact, TiVo wasn't even the first company to dream up such a solution. Over the past few years, several companies have offered digital audio receivers, which connect to PC-based audio content; digital media receivers, which are more agnostic about the digital media types to which they'll connect; and even full-fledged Media Center PCs, which offer both DVR capabilities and beautiful remote control-enabled UIs for interacting with digital music, radio, photos, videos, and live and recorded TV.

Historically, computers have been too complicated and expensive to permit placement in the living room. And the Media Center PC's somewhat lowly 3 percent market share speaks volumes about the problems PC makers face when trying to branch out into new markets. But make no mistake: The PC makers are coming, and a new generation of Media Center software, Media Extender hardware (which lets you remotely access the Media Center experience on any TV in the house), and compatibility with portable devices mean that your TV content won't be locked in your living room for long. Today, you have the capability to synchronize your recorded TV shows with a Portable Media Center device or Pocket PC (assuming you have a brand-new model and a capable memory card), or copy them to a laptop, and watch the most recently recorded episodes of The Simpsons on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles.

Back in the living room, you no longer need to spend a lot of money to achieve digital nirvana. Plummeting prices make the transition all the more compelling. In the past, putting together a home theater meant calling an expensive CEDIA-recommended custom installer and performing major construction on your home. Now, you can put together a surround-sound system, Media Center PC, and widescreen TV for a comparably small sum. If it wasn't so easy to use a portable device to take that content with you, you might never leave the house.

I'll discuss specific solutions for the digital living room in the upcoming Connected Home 2004 Annual Holiday Gift guide, but remember: If you're still kowtowing to the TV network schedule and arranging to be in front of your set for "Must See TV" on Thursdays, you're living in the past. Using relatively inexpensive hardware, you can watch your shows when and where you want to watch them. Additionally, if you're still using your TV's speakers to broadcast sound, you have even more evolving to do: There's a whole new audio experience just waiting to impress you.

And for all these digital innovations, we have to tip our hat to the PC industry. Those companies have been dealing with interoperability issues for decades, and now they're bringing their collective expertise to the living room. Time to kiss our islands of functionality goodbye.

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