Home sweet digital home

Home sweet digital home

Let's face it, there is no shortage of devices catering to the home. And there's plenty more to come. Add the convergence trend which is focused on the blending of IT and CE devices, and there is a lot for interested players to learn.

"Manufacturers are trying to blur the lines between home entertainment - the traditional CE devices with the IT component," Lako Pacific marketing manager, Eugene Wong, said. "And everybody is trying to get a piece of it."

From media centre PCs, LCD and plasma TVs, projectors, DVD players and recorders, to universal remote controls, speakers, home theatre, digital set-top boxes, and wireless media, devices come in all shapes and sizes. Elsewhere, the blend of IT and CE devices is in full swing, with ODMs in Taiwan designing to their hearts content, Intel Australia marketing manager, Phil Dows, said.

"The ODMs are producing funky form factors, and moving away from the traditional tower," he said. "Given the vibe for convergence, resellers should take note of the digital home concept and help demystify it.

"For the channel, we see this as the next wave, not the next fix," he said. "The devices will change the way we use technology in our homes."

Home networking is the catalyst for the integration of the PC and the TV. As more content is digitised, consumers want the ability to move the content around their homes, and between their devices using a home network.

According to IDC, there are three types of home networks: PC networks (also known as data networks and consists of two or more PCs/PDAs), multimedia networks (at least one PC and CE device) and entertainment networks (which does not include a PC and requires two or more of the same devices to connect for communication without sharing communication with other devices in the home).

But there are still some major challenges including education, and the lack of device integration and interoperability, which are slowing product development and the adoption rate of digital technology and home networking. On the interoperability front, for example, there is a need for a common display interface to allow consumers to view commercial content and high definition video in a consistent manger.

Broadband adoption, in particular, is a stumbling block. While numbers are improving - IDC estimates household broadband penetration will reach 27 per cent this year - there is still a plenty of room to grow.

Despite the lagging market, broadband is the key.

According to IDC, broadband brings fundamental changes to the way consumers listen to music, play online games and watch news or videos.

"Broadband households typically reported higher rates of ownership and usage of new technologies than other consumer segments," IDC analyst, Landry Fevre, said. "They were twice as likely to own home networking solutions and more likely to consume Internet content than the general population."

In the push towards the digital home, Australians are lapping up all things digital.

We are buying millions of digital products on both the software and hardware front including DVD software, interactive games, digital still cameras, notebooks, plasma TVs, MP3 players, DVD players and digital phones.

Educating the masses And while digital technology is spicing up the home entertainment front (and generating interest among consumers), the problem is many users know little about the technology.

Legend sales director, Rob Kester, said education was the key to bringing products to market successfully, particularly since the distributor was a new player in the consumer technology space.

The distributor, typically known for its memory modules and other components, jumped into the digital entertainment game 18 months ago. Originally shipping set-top boxes, the company now offers a complete range of personal video recorders (PVRs), HD DVD players, LCD screens and portable DVDs.

"Consumers are still sorting out their PVRs from their high definition screens, set-top boxes and MP3 players," Kester said.

As such, the company has charged national retail account managers with educating sales people on how the technology works.

For resellers eyeing the space, Kester said partners would find value by embracing the convergence between the PC and lifestyle products. "A great example is Legend's PVR," he said. "While sold as a consumer digital product, the PVR is in fact a PC with 160GB of memory - and the margin on the sale of this product is greater as an assembled unit."

While the IT and CE crossover is a boon for business, it's also a challenge - it was particularly tricky sorting out where all of the devices fitted, Lako's Wong said.

"Consumers can't quite make the connection between the computer and the TV," he said. "It's an identified problem. Even the mass merchants aren't clear as to what department to display the technology."

But the message was getting out, getting louder, and starting to be demystified, Wong said. "Last year, the industry made strides in educating consumers about how and where some of the devices fit into the house," he said, "but we're finding there is a lack of events where consumers and resellers can test out the integration, a look and feel type environment."

In a bid to educate the public about the digital home, and the fact that resellers and systems integrators are ideally suited to educate the public on its benefits and usage, Custom Electronics and Design and Installation Association (CEDIA) has banded together to get presence against the major retailers.

But the digital home was just one part of the home networking equation, CEDIA member and director, Chris McGowen, said.

The CEO of Advanced Living said the digital home aspect was a healthy part of the business, but not the lion's share of services - and other resellers/integrators should consider broadening their focus.

"It's one part of the home networking mix," McGowen said. "We do the technology for the entire house, and work with architects to consider the design of all systems including lighting, security and the computer network."

His company has also found success designing plans for individuals with special needs like home automation, acoustic design, systems integration, home theatre and multi-room audio services.

The company has co-developed software that manages digital media, dubbed Digital Homeware.

Resellers interested in servicing the market should first perform a needs analysis test to get a good understanding of what's needed on the home automation front, he said.

"There's an opportunity for partners to integrate the different systems," McGowen said. "The lighting can be linked with the security system, or the AV with curtains or blinds. It's the linking of two different technologies; it's like a marriage and requires specialist people."

A combination of electrical skills along with AV expertise, security and wireless experience, as well as computer networking knowledge was required, he said.

The set up of a home network could come in different flavours, D-Link marketing manager, Maurice Famularo, said. To cater to this, the company had rolled out a range of home installation services.

"If somebody goes into the retail store and needs more services, they can go for a range of installation packages," Famularo said.

The starter pack, for example, is ideal for the set up of a network system. It offers information on connecting two PCs (desktop and or laptop), installing two network adapters (one for each PC), connecting a router to either a DSL or cable modem; configuration of sharing and performing standard testing.

Other services included connecting either a printer, a wireless access point or router, an Internet video camera or video phone, or connecting a game console, he said.

Regionalised partners (and ones that hade a prior relationship with customers particularly in country areas and smaller towns) would be wise to offer something similar, Famularo said.

"A Jack of all trades could provide niche and focused installation services," he said.

Products Galore On the product front, manufacturers are all jumping into the game.

As part of Intel's Digital Home Group, for example, the chip powerhouse was working to roll out a number of digital home products, Intel's Dows said.

The first planned launch, slated for October, is a PC platform catering to the digital entertainment space, dubbed Viiv (it rhymes with five).

Viiv technology would come in a number of forms, Dows said. "It will include small CE-type devices [similar to a stereo component or DVD player] to more traditional desktop tower designs," he said.

PCs based on the technology would be souped up by a host of Intel technologies including a dual-core processor, chipset, platform software and wired networking capabilities.

"The idea is to have easy networking, whereby the Viiv platform can find and identify a number of devices," he said. The technology would ship with a remote control and Microsoft Windows Media Center Edition operating system.

It works with a number of CE devices and also comprises a range of software and online content services. They include movies, games and photos.

"The idea is to move the PC out of the study and into the lounge room," Dows said. "It's a major platform commitment for us, and is a crossover between IT and CE devices."We are moving away from one PC in a study to multiple users, on multiple PCs, in the household," Dows said. "We're taking existing PC requirements and transforming it into digital entertainment."

New Magic managing director, Mark Harwood, said consumers wanted a host of items including pro editing cards and converters, audio and music software, video editing software, TV tuners, PVRs and digital TV.

The multimedia hardware and software distributor has launched DigitalVision-HD products that act as an integrated media centre for WinXP, and more than a TV tuner card, Harwood said.

The technology adds value to the digital home in that it lets consumers pause live TV with ShowShift technology as well as offering an integrated Australian Electronic Program Guide. The company signed a sub-distribution deal with Ingram Micro last month in a bid to dig deeper into the digital home market and spread these and other products. On the OEM side, the company has rolled out a range of TV tuner cards targeted at systems builders.

D-Link's Famularo said products that could stream digital music, video and photos from your PC to your TV were the hot ticket items.

"We are seeing technology convergence across different verticals," Famularo said. "We're seeing convergence of devices. For example, a combo ADSL modem with firewalls. It used to be we would have two to three boxes, but now there are combo units. The same is happening in the home entertainment space as devices get integrated."

Other hot items catering to the digital lifestyle category include wireless gaming routers, wireless cameras, wireless router, Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) internal cards, and MIMO PC cards. Lako's Wong said hot items in the lead up to Christmas included high definition (HD) video players. The distributor has launched a cylindrical DVD, photo and music hard disk multimedia player, dubbed the Dvico Tvix HD 5000. The networking functionality of the device was useful to consumers who want to play digital video, digital music, digital still image and DVD files to a TV display and home entertainment system, he said.

"The digital home is an evolutionary trend where HD is the next part of the migration," Wong said. "We have HD content and now we need HD players."

The technology let users network the product for file transfer or streaming playback and featured an array of audio/visual outputs and connectivity ports for storage expansion, Wong said.

"Consumers want to be able to enjoy content in their lounge room without having to burn content to disc and play back on a DVD or CD player," Wong said.

The technology is designed to appeal to camcorder users adopting the new HDV format.

And that's what's great about the digital home - there is something for everybody.

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