After a decade of talk, technology companies are finally beginning to deliver on their promise to give people living-room access to every...
After a decade of talk, technology companies are finally beginning to deliver on their promise to give people living-room access to every form of electronic entertainment — television, movies, music, video games and the Internet — with the click of a remote.
But at demonstration after demonstration at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it was obvious that the “digital hub” for the home still faces a couple of major problems.
“Consumers don’t want to be network administrators just to get access to their media. It’s still not easy enough, and still too expensive,” said Rob Enderle, an analyst at the Enderle Group. “The industry is about 60 percent there.”
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Some of the hubs are personal computers for the living room that record TV programs, offer movies on demand, play recorded music or allow Web browsing. Others are TV boxes or portable music players that offer similar functions. In some cases, the entertainment isn’t consolidated in a single box, but spread across a wireless network of boxes.
There’s no question that people are accumulating bigger and bigger collections of songs, movies, photos, TV shows and games.
The tech companies are betting that mainstream consumers, not just technophiles, want and need more sophisticated devices to automatically manage those collections for them.
Even as many early devices are still selling poorly, the companies hold out hope that the demand will materialize when they hit the right balance of features.
“People are already saving a lot of large digital picture files,” said Shane Robison, chief technology officer at Hewlett-Packard, which showed off a Linux-based digital hub at the electronics show.
“Once people start recording and saving high-definition video, then they will start filling up a lot more storage and they will need more than what they already have,” he said.
“It’s not going to be something just for the super-rich,” added Dan Vivoli, executive vice president at Santa Clara, Calif., chip maker Nvidia, which makes graphics chips used in a variety of hubs.
Consumers are following a familiar pattern. First, they’re adopting fast broadband connections, from their phone or cable companies, to link their home computers to the Internet.
Then they start sharing those connections among other family members, leading them to get home networks. Kids download music or play online games. Families take digital pictures and store them on PCs. They adopt wireless networks, and then use those networks to move media on the PC to other parts of the home, such as wireless-enabled TVs or stereo receivers.
Many of these entertainment hubs are still too expensive, such as the $1,000-plus Media Center PCs sold by many companies. But they’re getting cheaper, simpler, more versatile and better connected. They still suffer from ease-of-use problems, incompatibilities and a lack of cheap services, said Tim Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies.
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates proudly noted that more than 1.4 million Media Center PCs, equipped with Microsoft software and aimed at living-room use, have been sold since 2002. But that’s a tiny slice of overall PC sales.
“This has been a great year moving to the digital lifestyle,” Gates said in his keynote speech. “The PC has a central role to play where it all comes together.”
But the PC still gets blasted by rivals, such as Samsung Senior Vice President Peter Weedfald, as too complicated to use. “It’s just going to sit in a corner somewhere,” he said. “We think the cellphone is the true digital convergence device.”
Yet other sectors of the electronics industry are convinced that their own products will become the must-have entertainment hub for consumers:
Levy Gerzberg, chief executive of chip maker Zoran in Sunnyvale, Calif., says networked DVD players have been selling well since 2003 and will be simpler to use than other hubs. Yet he acknowledges some problems. While consumers can take high-resolution photos on their digital cameras, they can’t display the images in high-quality form on their older analog TV sets.
Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina unveiled a “digital entertainment center” Jan. 7 that uses the Linux operating system instead of Microsoft software. The Media Hub will act as a digital cable recorder, with a removable hard drive, where owners can store music and photos, and a simple menu to let consumers organize all their digital content.
Jim Billmaier, CEO of cable set-top-box maker Digeo, based in Kirkland, believes that its Moxi cable set-top-box systems will be easier to use than complicated PCs.
Philips Electronics holds out hope that sophisticated remote controls will command a big role in the living room, while Intel and Microsoft hope to get rid of the remote-control clutter altogether.
Digital-TV makers such as Panasonic, Sony and Samsung are building so much smarts into TV sets that they believe that the TVs themselves will serve as hubs for digital homes.
In one session Jan. 7 on living-room electronics, a Microsoft executive sparred with a Philips executive. Frans Van Houten, CEO of Philips Semiconductor, asked companies to lay down their barriers and agree to common software standards to allow greater compatibility.
Pat Griffis, a standards director at Microsoft, said, “Frans, we have that. It’s called Windows.”
Van Houten responded, “We don’t all want to see that blue screen in front of us” that signals a computer crash.