Commentary: PCs creeping into home entertainment market

Eyeing a potentially huge market, PC makers have long envisioned the computer as the center of home entertainment.

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Eyeing a potentially huge market, PC makers have long envisioned the computer as the center of home entertainment.

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PC powers gear up for consumer electronics market
The advent of digital entertainment media--MP3s, Internet streaming audio, and DVDs--is creating some desire among consumers for products with multiple functions.

The result is a slow convergence that is beginning to drive PC design, much as the demands of game players drove high-end PC design for years.

However, a huge gulf separates today's reality from the vision of a totally integrated, digital, PC-driven home entertainment center. And consumer acceptance of a single, converged device is years away, if it ever happens.

The situation with home entertainment devices is analogous to that of the cell phone, PDA and PC in the office. We do not expect a single combined device to appear to replace all of these. But we do expect them to borrow some features from each other, such as in cell phone-PDA combinations.

Several barriers stand in the way of achieving the vision of a digital entertainment system. Computer makers are redesigning PC packaging to add a different set of ergonomics. However, software lags. Current software is often difficult to use. No company has delivered an interface that a wide variety of people will embrace. Also, the software must deal with the reality that a home entertainment system is a distributed peer-to-peer network, not a hub-and-spoke model controlled by a PC.

Companies also need to give up the idea of a single combined device--at least in the near term. Each of the component systems will evolve at its own pace. For instance, TV appears to be on the brink of moving to some sort of high-definition TV, while film is in the midst of evolving from analog tape to DVD. Computer systems themselves will follow yet another evolutionary path. This makes the idea of a single device that does everything impractical. Instead of device convergence, vendors must focus on device connection and coordination.

Although networking/connectivity is a key element in bringing the computing and electronics worlds closer together, technical problems exist with interfaces between devices. Consumer entertainment systems, such as stereos, TVs and cable boxes, use their own cable-based interfaces that do not correspond to those used by computers.

Entertainment equipment makers are beginning to consider replacing the traditional multiple RCA jacks that currently serve as interfaces on their equipment with either 1394 FireWire, which is supported by Sony and Apple Computer, or USB2, which is championed by all the PC manufacturers, as well as Microsoft and Intel. Gateway technologies are appearing that can convert between digital and analog signals, helping to bridge the gaps between entertainment and computer systems.

Even as the connectivity challenges are addressed, it will be a decade or more before a majority of homes have a complete set of devices with these new interface technologies. Consumers typically do not often replace their expensive stereos and TVs. Even when they do, they often keep old technology for decades. For instance, many music collectors still have turntables connected to their stereos so they can play treasured vinyl recordings.

On the other hand, some convergence is certainly happening. Digital images and music formats represent the leading edge of media convergence. Storage media also is increasingly bridging the gap between computing and consumer electronics. And vendors are increasingly building ergonomics into computing systems that bring them closer to the consumer electronics world. Convergence of the interconnect will happen, albeit slowly, and some degree of device convergence may happen in the long term.

What is really happening is a sort of "creeping convergence." Today with MP3, music is digital for instance. But while most MP3 consumers download their music into their PCs, most then transfer those files to a separate, specialized MP3 device rather than playing them on their computers.

Convergence affects the office, as well as the home, though in a different way.

Inevitably, PC makers will bundle new capabilities--for instance, DVD players--into the computers they sell to offices as well as those they sell to homes. Actually, that has already become the norm. For years, every PC and laptop has come equipped with advanced sound and graphics--mainly to meet the needs of computer gamers and consumers rather than those of businesses. As a result, today the average office computer only needs a pair of good speakers to play streaming audio from the Internet.

Companies need to start managing worker expectations. They should not need to pay to support massive amounts of MP3 downloads, but equally, they need to take advantage of new communications technologies when they make business sense. Companies need to establish clear policies and implement those in the computer infrastructure.

The problem for companies is to regulate the use of these technologies. On the one hand, they do have legitimate business uses. For instance, company meetings and news events can be broadcast through the corporate network as streaming audio. Also, Web-based services will eventually become more gamelike--using digital entertainment capabilities--to attract more attention. Therefore, corporate marketing departments need to experiment with these technologies to become familiar with their capabilities and look for opportunities to exploit them.

On the other hand, these capabilities can put a major load on corporate networks. Downloads of streaming audio can quickly affect corporate network performance. Management systems need to anticipate this and provide mechanisms to track and manage this use. Servers and storage systems also will need to be upgraded to handle these large files.

While it is fairly easy to regulate or even block access to MP3 files from the office, streaming audio--and in the near future, streaming video--presents a much larger potential problem. It gobbles up very large amounts of office network bandwidth and server and PC processing power. Yet it has legitimate uses. An employee could be listening to important breaking industry news on Bloomberg Radio or to a rock station from the Ukraine. It is very difficult for the business to permit the first but block the other.

Meta Group analysts Dale Kutnick, Val Sribar, David Cearley, Steve Kleynhans, Peter Burris, and William Zachmann contributed to this article.

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