In the early 1990’s Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates talked enthusiastically about the convergence of computing and entertainment. In his early dreams he saw the PC taking over from the TV set and moving from the study to the lounge.
The problem was that Joe Consumer didn’t share the same dream. Nobody wanted a beige box in the lounge and very few people wanted to watch TV on their PC because both devices had distinctly different roles. But, more importantly, computer monitors just were not designed for television and the average PC didn’t have enough grunt to cope with it.
Today that’s all changing. PC’s have no shortage of processing power; graphics cards have taken a quantum leap over the past 10 years and the growing adoption of LCD monitors as well as broadband and home wireless networking means the stage is finally set for convergence to happen.
OEMs are gearing up for it and specialist dealers have been offering centralised PC-based entertainment hubs for the past 18 months. These stylised cube-shaped boxes sit relatively unobtrusively in the lounge, linking your audio visual equipment and often allowing users to surf the Net through their TV, using a remote control rather than keyboard and mouse.
Intel claims it will be releasing a special entertainment hub PC — not to be confused with the Media Centre PC — motherboard chipset later in the year that enables a smaller form factor and integrates features such as surround sound and wireless connectivity.
Companies such as Acer, BenQ, Toshiba and others have been offering the forerunners of Media Centre PCs for several months; however, they have not yet been able to take advantage of the operating system upgrade.
And it is not just PC manufacturers who see the opportunities. Wireless networking is expected to get a shot in the arm and companies such as D-Link are already producing wireless entertainment hubs that will wirelessly network PCs to TVs and other consumer electronics.
But while it may be knocking at the door convergence is not going to happen overnight.
Microsoft has already delayed the local version of Media Centre Edition (MCE) and only recently announced it will be here by the end of the year, although industry insiders suggest it could be as early as September. While the take up of broadband has been steady it has not set the world on fire and ADSL is not yet up to the speed needed to deliver movies on demand.
As a result, the general expectation is that while MCE will cause a revolution in home entertainment, it will take up to two years for it to gather momentum.
When it does come it is expected to drive a demand for new technologies such as larger and faster hard drives (digital graphics and video require a lot of storage) and more efficient recording media such as dual-layer DVD and Blu-ray; and force traditional PC resellers and system builders to retrain or form alliances with AV dealers.
They also are going to have to be prepared to offer value-added services such as home installation if the idea of being able to wirelessly drag content from the Media Centre PC in the study to the entertainment PC in the lounge is going to gain acceptance.
Microsoft’s home and entertainment division senior manager of strategic development and planning, John Gillhespy, won’t be drawn into giving a more precise date than “by the end of the year”’ for the release of Media Centre Edition but has confirmed that among the hardware manufacturers planning to introduce Media Centre PCs in Australia are Acer, HP and Toshiba.
He said resellers will be the key to MCE’s acceptance and will play an important role by offering a wide range of hardware that takes advantages of its capabilities, ensuring customers are signed up for broadband and explaining the integrated technologies. However, up until now it had not been a foregone conclusion that it would be released in Australia because of the necessity to produce a local version.
“There were a number of considerations that needed to be taken into account when preparing this technology for launch in Australia,” he said.
Gillhespy said Microsoft would outline its broader strategy in coming weeks and would work with its channel partners in the lead up to the launch. Meanwhile, both Intel and AMD are planning new hardware releases in coming months designed to take advantage of MCE and turn the hype surrounding the so-called digital home into some form of reality.
Intel A/NZ area sales manager, Andrew McLean, said there would be several different platforms coming out in coming months.
“We are right behind the concept of the Media Centre PC but in future you will have different types of PC throughout the house,” he said. “You’ll probably still have a creativity PC that fits in the study where you do all your content creation and use for the distribution of all content. But what you might also see is an entertainment PC that sits with your other Audio Visual products in the lounge.
“It’s a bit like a Media Centre PC but it will be a different form factor. It will be more along the lines of an AV type form factor and will be the device where you see the real convergence between consumer electronics and computing. It will have several inputs such as cable or ADSL, and free-to-air TV and use your TV as the monitor. While it will work with CRT or LCD TVs, the higher definition the better. It will not require a keyboard or mouse but will be driven on screen by a remote control unit.” McLean said some resellers or system builders that had their own retail outlets would embrace the entertainment PC concept, while others would start teaming up with people who were already in the AV space.
“Some system builders are already selling a number of their systems through AV suppliers, especially those who have specialised in the higher end AV area,” he said. “Resellers who see a potential market for this type of product have to start looking at their premises to make them into an environment that is going to attract mainstream customers to these type of devices. They won’t just be able to sell on price alone and will have to solution sell. They will have to decide whether they can provide the solution themselves or whether they need to match up with an AV specialist. Resellers will have to be open to training so they know how to determine good, better and best configurations.
“We will be out their providing the building blocks but they are going to have to work out their own ‘go to market’.”
Sydney-based systems builder, Pioneer Computers Australia, has been gearing up for the ‘revolution’ for sometime and is already custom manufacturing Media Centre PCs. However, Pioneer has gone a step further and created its own AV brand, DreamVision, to cash in on MCE when it is finally released.
Product manager, Jeff Li, said he expected MCE to be available in September and the company would be ready for it. Its DreamVision 30-inch LCD was already proving popular with PC users and had proven popular at a recent Combined LAN Gamers Australia event.
BenQ business unit manager, Laurie White, said MCE opened up a market for wireless hubs, LCD TVs, broadband modems and a host of other things.
“People were prepared to pay $10,000 to wire their home, but now you can redeploy that to place an infrastructure based around wireless and the digital home concept,” White said. “There is already a need for this product. People want it straight away and we [BenQ] have already started to touch on it by putting a remote control unit in our media centre laptop as a preview of the look and feel of the future.”
White said the resellers who made the most of the opportunity would be those which offered consulting to get the entire home geared up and everything installed — coordinating bringing the broadband into a central point so that hub could then be the focal point of the home.
“At present, some homes have ADSL coming into the study and cable coming into the lounge, Telstra installs the ADSL and the cable company installs the pay TV but nobody coordinates it,” White said. “So the reseller’s job will be to centralise it all and then set it up so everything can be easily controlled through the Media Centre interfaces.
“There is quite a lot of value-add and handholding right at that initial installation stage. The days of sitting around and hoping a customer walks in the door so you can hand them a computer and say goodbye are gone. Resellers have to come down to the end user level in the home and assist them with the adoption of the technology.”
He is just one of many who predict opportunity and change with the arrival of Media Centre Edition and the convergence being pushed by Microsoft, Intel and others.
They claim it is already a proven winner in the US — now it is Australia’s turn.