Hip at home

Hip at home

Looking for a cinematic experience? Then check out the latest gaggle of gear (including ultra-groovy home theatre projectors) catering to the home entertainment space.

From home theatre systems, plasma display panels, components and speakers to high definition set top boxes to DVD recorders and players, the home entertainment market is creating a sizzle. But, catch your breath, there's more.

The ongoing convergence of IT and consumer electronic products is creating new selling opportunities for dealers. In addition to the actual sale, partners could help consumers make their homes digital, HP South Pacific vice-president and general manager imaging and consumer business, Rebekah O'Flaherty, said.

"Clearly consumers want to learn more about how to make their homes digital and the channel plays a critical role in education and advice," she said.

Channel partners needed to showcase a solution, and not just peddle a set of hot products, O'Flaherty said.

"Consumers are in transition, moving from analogue devices to digital devices and they are still being informed and educated about how easy and connected digital devices can be," O'Flaherty said.

Partners could help explain the digital home concept, she said.

"A digital home offers an entertainment extravaganza, an efficiently smart home office, a gaming hub, and a personal photolab, all incorporating a complete converged and wireless experience," O'Flaherty said.

In a bid to curb the smart home confusion, HP has set up experience centres, is offering in-store displays, running promotions, live demonstrations, workshops, online training, and launched the "digital home of the future", which allowed people to experience and make sense of digital technology.

"These elements provide end users and our channel with the opportunity to experience digital entertainment rather than simply reading a product spec," she said.

Showing consumers all the bits and pieces translated into good consulting opportunities for the channel, Toshiba product marketing manager, Justin White, said.

As the ongoing convergence of IT and CE worlds continued, he said resellers could help stem the confusion and offer consumers simple, easy-to-use solutions via consulting, installation and training.

"There is a lot of confusion amongst consumers dealing with home automation," White said. "But there are products out there, including the Qosmio, that converge the home entertainment system and offer a TV, VCR, DVD and computer all in one.

"Consumers may have heard about the converged technology, but are not sure about the devices or how they work. So the consulting income for resellers becomes a bigger, better sale."

The Qosmio system, for example, could also integrate with sound systems and projectors, White said, as well as plasma and LCD technologies for a home theatre experience.

Toshiba also offers a host of networking and AV products (including a wireless TV tuner) that act as the link/entertainment hub around the house, he said.

"This allows you to broadcast TV to anywhere in the house," White said. "You can watch TV on a notebook."

As more and more household appliances became digital and broadband Internet access was available to more homes, these would see a continued march towards smart home functionality, IDC research analyst, Landry Fevre, said. But Australia was lagging behind in the broadband adoption compared to other nations.

Despite the broadband lag, home networking was an active area in the home entertainment market, albeit it needed work in terms of device integration and a better array of applications, Fevre said.

The market takes into account PC to PC networks (data networks), PC to CE (multimedia networks), and CE to CE (entertainment networks). The challenge is getting the devices to talk to each other.

"All of these devices have different processing power and interfaces," Fevre said. "It is a challenge trying to provide a consistent view of the content."

A recent IDC study, dubbed Australia Home Networking Market Forecast and Analysis 2004-2009: Are Home Networks a Data Only Zone touches on the challenges slowing mainstream adoption of home networking technology.

Home networking functions are currently limited to basic, data transmission tasks such as sharing a broadband connection or peripherals among multiple PCs, and are only adopted by tech-savvy households, acoording to the study.

IDC found that for home networking to enter mainstream, vendors in this space needed to change consumers' mindset that this technology was data-centric and complex. This could be achieved by improving ease of use and taking home networking beyond datacentre applications and into media applications.

The solution? Home system integrators could help with home networking deployments, Fevre said.

More hot home items

What else can channel partners and consumers wedge into the home to get consumers digital home savvy?

A good starting point, O'Flaherty said, is a MediaCenter PC - the HP version was the company's most popular product catering to the digital entertainment arena. It features the HP Personal Media Drive, Intel 915 chipset, built-in wireless and a 9-in-1 media card reader.

"We have been really pleased with the take up of the HP Media Centre PC in Australia," she said. "However, the HP MCPC is just one of many products that HP has in the digital entertainment arena. Our consumer digital projector with a built-in DVD has enabled consumers to have an instant theatre experience anywhere in the home and even the backyard."

IDC's Fevre said projectors were garnering interest given the souped up functionality.

Catering to the home cinema craze, a top feature of HP's ep9012 was its integrated functionality, HP product manager, projectors, Ben Ho, said. "It's a three-in-one device, offering an integrated DVD player, subwoofer and 2.1 surround sound," Ho said. "You can play DVDs, VCDs and MP3 CDs with the built-in DVD player. You don't need to connect to a PC. It's a whole new market - an instant cinema device." The technology would be open to the channel as of July 1 through Ingram Micro, he said.

"The demand for this product is high," Ho said. "We've been talking to our top 10 resellers in the IT space who want to carry the product." Given the all-in-one functionality, consumers are considering the projector purchase. "A lot of people have various entertainment devices in the home, but are missing the cinema experience," he said.

Other attention grabbers and potential selling opportunities included digital photography solutions (there was a trend towards scrapbooking in Australia, HP's O'Flaherty said), and flat panel TVs including plasma and LCDs, Optima chairman and managing director, Cornel Ung, said. "High definition plasmas, the 42-inch and 50-inch machines, are a hot market," Ung said. "LCD TVs and the projector are also a good complement in the home."

LCD TVs are a faster growing market than plasmas, he said, in part because quality had improved and prices had come down in the last six months.

While plasma was popular, consumers were moving towards LCDs in growing numbers, Sony group marketing manager for home network products, Ian Lowe, said.

"The fashion word at the moment is plasma," Lowe said. "It is having a good run, particularly the 42-inch space. But in the coming months, LCD will be taking more share. It will shake the plasma market up within the next six months."

In an attempt to bridge the worlds of IT and TV technologies, Sony has unveiled an integrated LCD TV tuner, which features multiple inputs and multi-tasking capabilities. The two models also include HDTV connectivity, SRS WOW 3D Audio technology and TV/PC connectivity.

"This means users can view TV shows and work documents at the same time in the same unit," Lowe said.

Phillips Electronics sales and marketing manager for consumer electronics, Matthew Moran, agreed plasma was the race winner at the moment, but said that LCD was picking up speed: "Plasma is the biggest at the moment, but growth in this is slowing."

Plasma or LCD, the TV market was attracting a myriad of vendors, IDC's Fevre said.

"Many players are competing to get a hold of the living room, he said. "We've started to see IT players competing with CE players. Look at HP and Gateway getting into plasma and LCD screens."

But there's more. Home theatre systems, as well as DVD recorders (particularly ones with hard drives) were also in demand, Sony's Lowe said. "Consumers are going crazy over DVD recorders," he said. "It's an area of constant growth."

Entry-level home theatre systems (ranging from $399 to $899) were also garnering attention, Moran said. "You can get a complete cinematic entertainment with a home theatre in a box with surround sound system," he said.

DVD recorders with hard drives were taking over the overall DVD market, Moran said, giving users the added functionality of pausing live TV (time shifting capabilities) and store and record to disk.

Audio products, including the Wireless Music Center, would be the company's major focus for the second half of the year, he said. "The technology offers a complete solution for digital music storage, management and distribution," Moran said.

Users can stream music anywhere in the home.

The product stored up to 40GB of digital music and wirelessly (802.11g) streamed its contents throughout the home at a rate of 54MBps, he said.

Indeed, with the digital home continuing to make headlines, what else could the channel and consumers expect to see down the road? It's all about funky, easy-to-use devices and easily accessible content, Fevre said.

Gadgets galore

Dishing out a two-pronged approach, HP's O'Flaherty said the company was continuing to earmark cash for the development of key markets, and would improve the management of digital content in the home through its digital entertainment centres.

"From portable to loungeroom-based digital entertainment, including advancements in media centre PCs, entertainment notebooks, handheld PCs, smart phones and portable/wireless photo printers, HP will continue to expand its offerings in Australia," she said.

But Sony's Lowe said despite the myriad of gadgets and market development, the concept of a blended IT/CE world was still at least 12 to 18 months away - and this was a conservative estimate.

"While I believe IT and AV converged products are the future, it's still difficult right now to grasp," Lowe said. "Consumers are not convinced they need integration in the home. And while there's a market coming for home automation and server-based content distribution in the home, consumers aren't ready."

Even so, Sony, like many vendors, is getting ready for the shift.

"Our vision for the future is enormous," he said. "It's all about ubiquitous networks: content sharing and distribution anywhere in the home from a PC, notebook or handheld. But whilst we've been championing it, we have come to the realisation consumers are not ready for it. Consumers are not interested in complexity and need to know where there is a benefit."

IDC's Fevre expected to see a move towards triple-play services (IP-TV, broadband access and voice over a single network) and solutions such as digital video recorders.

"This will change the way we watch TV and access content," he said.

IP-TV was the next set of services to take advantage of broadband and bring entertainment to consumers in the home via the same pipes, Fevre said.

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