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Hardware Proliferates to Play, Organize, Record and Distribute Home Media

19 Jan, 2004 By: Gary Arlen

Editor's Note: This is the first in a three-part series examining digital media services and their impact on the home video industry.

Prismiq. Digital Deck. Mirra. Motorola's “Simplefi.”

It's hardware you've probably never heard of.

Not to mention next-generation devices from ReplayTV, TiVo and media-center control software and technology from Microsoft, DivXNetworks and countless other hardware and software companies.

As seen at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this month in Las Vegas and proclaimed repeatedly by every keynoter, the future of entertainment is all about “interconnectivity,” “interoperability” and audio-video networking to and in the home.

Brad Kayton, VP of Prismiq, summarized the situation at a CES session titled “Digging Into the New-New Digital,” which looked at the convergence of the consumer electronics and computer worlds. “Two giant industries are trying to get into each other's territories,” Kayton said. “In some cases it's a clash, in other cases a benevolent coming together. It makes for a lot of interesting products and a lot of interesting protocol debates and standards setting.”

It also augurs dramatic changes in the ways that viewers obtain, save and see video. At a CES session dealing with content distribution, John Hendricks, founder, chairman and CEO of Discovery Communications (the cable programming behemoth), pointed out that a relatively small audience sector is already driving this move to new digital entertainment. “It's amazing what the top quintile in affluence … will spend,” Hendricks said, referring to the 20 million early adopters of high-definition TV (HDTV) who will be equipped with appropriate hardware during the coming year. He expects 4 million to 5 million of that cohort to be “multisourced,” subscribing to cable and satellite as well as receiving broadcast HDTV content. Although Hendricks was focused specifically on HDTV in that session, his remarks — and subsequent comments from cable and satellite executives — expanded to extol the rollout of personal video recorders (PVRs), especially the coming wave of high-definition PVRs. “People will insist on managing that media, being able to watch what they want, when they want,” Hendricks said.

How They'll Manage
Exactly what tools or systems viewers will use to handle that cornucopia of content was the conundrum of CES, as hundreds of hopefuls promised that they have the best solution to access, store, navigate and display video and audio content. Their pronouncements sound to some as merely the latest braying in the two-decades-old lament that shrink-wrapped home video will be shunted aside by other delivery options.

Yet this time the threat seems more real, if only because of the success of individual devices and tools. “Home Theater in a Box” — a staple of consumer electronics in recent years — has familiarized customers with integrated devices that deliver an expanded entertainment experience. At the same time, broadband Internet access and, more recently, the boom in wireless networking have introduced many of those same households to alternative sources of content and home delivery.

Now it's time to put these and other pieces together. Intel, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft, among others, had an increased presence at CES, coming with their component suppliers who brought hard drives, network cards and connectors (wired and wireless). These tools that enable viewers to see or listen to programs around the house on any device include a new array of handheld screens that cater to the untethered youngest generation.

From another direction came the return of Motorola — absent for 20 years as a TV-set maker. Actually, Motorola's HDTV monitors and screens are made in China by ViewSonic, a monitor manufacturer with no TV presence in the United States (and hence no self-competition). But the digital displays are just the frosting on Motorola's cake: set-top boxes. The company is already the leading supplier of cable TV set-top equipment.

Now Motorola's retail plan includes devices to capture and store video and music, and pipe them throughout the house through these media centers. Motorola's Simplefi box, which handles MP3 files, has been available for a year. In development is a version that stores and distributes video.

More Newcomers
Digital Deck, an ambitious Redwood City, Calif., start-up, is publicizing its “whole-home entertainment” system that lets customers distribute entertainment content from any source to any other source around the house through its “Send & Play” adapter. The company acknowledged that it is still in its early testing phases.

The $399 Personal Server from Mirra is aimed initially at backing up digital photos and files, but the company apparently has ambitions toward other home entertainment.

Prismiq has been around for a year. Its latest MediaPlayer/Recorder, a diskless PVR, connects to computers on the home network (for Internet input) as well as cable or satellite TV feeds. The Prismiq navigation system can be customized for every family member.

Microsoft's Windows Media Center software — a new version of which will be available later this year — is powering similar services through Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Gateway and many other hardware configurations.

Of course, Sony, Panasonic, Thomson, Philips, Samsung and most other major brands also have similar controller technologies to aggregate and integrate the home viewing experience. Most of these systems rely to some degree on a DVD player as part of the system. But increasingly, the focus is on DVD recorders.

For example, Toshiba's RD-SX342 combo unit includes an 80GB hard drive plus a DVD recorder capable of high-speed copying. Sharp's DV-HR300U can record in two formats of DVD (–R/RW); it also includes an 80GB hard drive.

Also at CES was the new Multimedia over Coax Alliance. MoCA is a consortium of eight consumer electronics, cable and satellite companies and retailers. Collectively, they want to exploit existing home cable wiring to connect digital devices and move video and audio securely around the house.

The onslaught of tactics and tools will inevitably generate confusion for a while. But, as Hewlett-Packard chairman/CEO Carly Fiorina said at the show: “The true revolution is around the experience and making the whole system come together — a whole system that requires an entire network of players and partners.”

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications Inc., a Bethesda, Md., research firm.

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