Homing in on new opportunities

Homing in on new opportunities

The Jetsons had the right idea. They could rocket to the moon and back, take ultra-sonic showers, have the house cleaned by robots and dial a dinner when they were hungry. Essentially, electronic gadgets ruled their world brought everything to their fingertips. If they needed anything, they simply pushed a button.

And while the home of today isn't so futuristic or convenient, the vision - at least in the digital home sense - is to have the lounge room become the entertainment hub of the homestead. Having gadgets in the home to make life more enjoyable and hassle-free is a dream come true for many a couch-potato.

Essentially, the idea is to give users easy access to movies, games and music files anytime, anywhere in the home, according to Intel Australia's national sales manager, Andrew McLean. "All content is going digital - whether the content is from DVD, CD, MP3 or the Net and whether it's making digital movies or watching digital TV," he said.

Indeed, digital content and broadcast - along with hardware including MP3s, camcorders and set-top boxes - is the new reality for the Australian consumer, product marketing manager for Toshiba Information Systems Division, Matt Codrington, agreed. Already, there are more than 100 TV stations with digital content available, he said.

"The push towards the digital home is already here," Codrington said. "With the popularity of digital cameras, users are now creating their own content."

But that's just one device, and one part of the digital home story, he said. "It's all about managing content and having mobility - and knowing what can be done on a multitude of devices."

And while Microsoft's heavily-touted Media Center Edition and a host of souped up PCs are among the main ingredients in the digital home concoction, there are other items making it all happen, Lako Pacific marketing manager, Eugene Wong, said. Specialist product categories are proving popular with consumers that want increased functionality but don't necessarily want to fork out for a new desktop or notebook, he said.

As consumers seek out the digital home lifestyle, Melbourne-based Lako Pacific is seeing sales mushroom in the appliance arena, Wong said.

"We know big IT players are moving into the lounge room with Media Center PCs but Australian consumers are not well known for being early adopters and are still more accustomed to appliances than PCs that area of the home," Wong said. "Consumers are very price conscious and appliances can achieve similar results to Media Center for a much lower cost."

Touting the smorgasbord approach in terms of product category, Intel's McLean said digital home products come in all shapes and sizes - and the company is not driving into any one particular arena. "Silicon is in everything: in the PCs, set-top boxes, and in the networking products," he said.

Two months ago, the company hatched a Digital Home Group, which looks across all manufacturing facilities to develop products that satisfy consumer needs in the virtual home. "It's not just about the CPU, it's much bigger," McLean said. "It includes the desktop that sits in the study (for content creation), but also the entertainment unit that sits in the lounge and can stream content to other panels in the home."

Calling the digital home group a top growth area for the company, he said the story is much bigger than the desktop or notebook. Instead, the company wants to broaden things out and develop a line of PC, consumer electronics and mobile platforms and technologies that work together inside the home.

The rollout of dual-core processors, for example, the Pentium D, is a key strategy for revving up the digital home. Dual- and multi-core products include two or more CPU cores within a single processor, which allows for simultaneous management of activities, McLean said.

"No two homes are the same, and we can't pigeonhole the type of product we'll see or what a consumer may need," McLean said, pitching the importance of multi-tasking within the home.

The scenario could include a PC for graphic-intense gaming, an MP3 player for digital music and a personal media recorder for recording TV shows - the idea is to not limit the opportunities to a single device, McLean said.

Intel recently acquired Oplus Technologies - a provider of video processor products and technologies in digital television and digital displays - in a bid to complement the chipmakers standards-based silicon and software for the consumer electronics (CE) market.

And while the product scenarios are only limited by imagination, analysts say the main issue slowing adoption of a digital lifestyle is incompatible technologies.

Making inroads on the standards front, McLean said the Digital Living Network Alliance is spearheading efforts in this area and helping devices talk to each other. "You can't grow a category with proprietary technology," he said. "You need a whole ecosystem working to make the devices communicate."

Beyond standards, other challenges stalling digital home adoption include slow uptake of broadband, IDC analyst, Landry Fevre, said.

"Broadband is the weakest link in the Australian digital home as the penetration is very low and service offerings are of poor value for money," he said.

But once broadband is more of a reality, Fevre said it will bring important changes to the way consumers listen to music, play online games and watch news or videos.

So what's on tap on the home front? Entertainment hubs, digital media players, gaming devices, digital cameras and multipurpose gadgets are increasingly being added to company product roadmaps. From TVs and projectors to DVD players or recorders and home theatres in a box, the digital home is a growing market.

Given the attraction to appliances, sales of a host of items are generating heat, according to Lako Pacific's Wong. Despite continuing qualms over standards, he said today's technology is good enough to offer consumers a true digital home experience - it's just a matter of educating consumers on what is available and how to make the most of it.

"We need to get into the faces of consumers and explain to them how easy it is to hook it all up. They don't need to be wary about the connectivity part of things."

While high-definition television (HDTV) set-top boxes with built-in recording functions and networking features are a bit ahead of their time, the market is being tickled by digital television and widescreen TVs replacing analogue 4:3 TVs. "These devices will pave the way for full digital conversion of lounge room appliances," Wong said.

Digital TV tuners are another highlight, he added. The company is peddling 2000 pieces a month. "There has been a huge spoke since the middle of last year," he said.

Meanwhile, a new hybrid IT/appliance/multimedia player (which costs about $350) is also getting good traction, he said. The company has sold 750 units in the past four months.

"The concept of these standalone multimedia appliances is to play multimedia files without being networked to a PC," Wong said. "Digital files of backed-up DVDs, JPEGs, MP3s are stored and played out to TVs and home entertainment systems. The transfer of files to the unit still requires a USB connection at the time of transfer, but then the unit is disengaged from the PC and brought into the lounge room.

"New products to come will marry HDTV viewing, recording networkability and multimedia playing facilities into a single box that consumers can simply plug in and switch on. That's where Lako is looking for growth with home entertainment products."

Panasonic's DVD recorder product manager, Kym Pardey, said these machines are the hot item of the day and would become an integral part of the digital home mix for consumers.

The company offers four models, ranging from the basic VCR replacement model to the powerhouse machine with massive storage capability: a 400GB hard-disk drive (HDD) that provides up to 709 hours of continuous recording.

"DVD recorders are the fastest growing area in the digital home and consumer electronics space," Pardey said. "It's a key focus for us and an integral part of the digital networking arena."

DVD recorders offer better image and surround sound capture; the ability to record live shows while playing back video content recorded earlier; and massive recording space for units with onboard hard drives, Pardey said.

Panasonic is particularly touting models with built-in hard-disk drives - the company's 80GB HDD recorder offers 150 hours of continuous recording and is a prime example of a converged CE and IT product, Pardey said.

While the PC is useful, the networking functionality is good enough on the DVD recorder to do a host of jobs including transferring photo files, he said. "We're finding that hovering around the PC is not ideal for viewing," he explained. "The PC is still useful for networking, but the DVD recorder brings flexibility to consumers who don't want to invest in a desktop or a laptop."

Toshiba's Codrington said DVD recording is just one of the features included in the company's four-in-one Qosmio entertainment unit. "This is true convergence because it offers the latest in mobile computing, display, audio and video technology," he said.

The mobile digital entertainment unit offers a DVD recorder with HDD, a Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-enabled notebook, an LCD TV and high-quality audio, according to Codrington. "Qosmio offers live television, including record and pause and time-slip viewing functionality," he said.

And while the notebook remains an integral part of the digital home, other popular peripherals catering to the space include pocket audio devices and wireless access points with built-in TV tuners, Codrington said.

As a result, consumers can watch TV inside or outside the home - a definite bonus, he said. "Users can stream any content from a central Qosmio hub to another device via a standard wireless network," he explained.

Meanwhile, the digital media adapter is another emerging product category catering to the digital home, IDC's Fevre, said. Thanks to the digital media adapter, a child could play a game on the PC in the bedroom, while the parent in the living room uses a remote control to record or access stored music or video from the same PC, which could then be routed to a connected stereo or display.

Calling it a new breed of product, the media adapter helps users get access to media content throughout the home, which was traditionally stored and only accessible on the PC. "But prices remain steep," Fevre said.

Looking to future product and service development in the digital home, he suggested IP-TV would be the next big thing, although it's still light years away. Combining IP-TV with broadband access at speed above 3Mbps and voice over a single network is known as triple-play services, he said.

While the convergence of CE and IT is well underway, owner of the eponymous Len Wallis Audio said the industry was currently leaning more towards the visual side of the market opposed to the audio side.

Catering to the digital home space, the company offers visual, audio display devices, speakers, amplification, packaged systems and accessories.

But forget about the actual product for a second and consider the main stumbling block in the digital home arena: networking all of the bits and pieces together. Wallis said this is where an integrator like his company comes in handy because programming techniques are worth their weight in gold.

"The big thing is the management of all of these things," Wallis said. "From digital storage media devices to CD players and DVD recorders, how do you control all of the different systems?"

One way, he said, is to hook up a control system like Creston or AMX, which offers a central control panel that acts like a server or main communication hub for the home. "We can overlay this system over all of the other house systems from audio, video, PC control, lighting, electricity, heating and irrigation. All systems will be controlled by one panel - it takes over the entire home network."

And while there are some interoperability issues with hooking up the system, Wallis said the company could get most devices to talk. "Once this is performed, the techno learning curve goes away and the digital home becomes a less scary place for consumers," he said.

As the battle for the virtual lounge room takes hold, resellers can look for opportunity in two areas, according to Intel's McLean. "Skill up and sell complete solutions, not just point products; or team up with a specialised AV retailer like Len Wallis to build products," he said.

"It goes beyond Sony and Panasonic. There are 50 different manufacturers of speakers alone. It's just a matter of learning about the products, building the right solutions for consumers, then offering the network installation, service and support.

"The marriage of IT resellers and AV partners has started to happen. Partners are realising that if they need a new business opportunity or revenue stream, the digital home is a good place to look for it."

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