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The cusp of convergence

Read on before plunking down $1,200 or more on a Media Center PC.

In this corner we have: A computer, a monitor, a keyboard, a mouse, a printer, a USB hub, a modem or router, a computer backend bristling with plugs, and wires, wires, wires. In the other corner we have: A TV, a VCR, a DVD, a receiver/amplifier, a turntable, a tape player, the backend of each bristling with plugs, and wires, wires, wires. Get all of this together and what have you got?

Some would call it convergence. I’d call it a mess. That’s why I’m wondering how many people were intrigued by the Media Center PCs that appeared just before Christmas 2002. Among others, HP and Gateway took their cue from Microsoft Windows XP Media Center software and produced some relatively high-powered PCs that, among other things, link with home entertainment equipment, especially TV.

Before this sounds like a diatribe, I’d like to make it clear that I really like the idea of converging computers with home entertainment systems. I was intrigued by the Media Center systems, partly by the hype, but also by the attempt to get a lot of technology into one package and put a reasonable price on it. I didn’t buy one, but I did mooch some time with one at the home of my wife’s kin.

The cost of my experience was about four hours of helping with installation, as we deciphered manuals, tracked down missing pieces, and fended off the eager hands of the family young. Later, in a quieter atmosphere, I was able to think about the Media Center PC and the whole idea of convergence for the home.

We’re all newbies here

Why would you want your computer and entertainment gear to work together? That’s a fundamental question I think will give pause to a lot of people. One reason why answers don’t come popping to the top of the head is that until fairly recently the two systems didn’t mix. Home entertainment was analog electronics and computers were digital. Though bridges could be made, the connections were usually expensive and unsatisfactory. Consequently, we don’t have much experience to help us understand how convergence might be an improvement.

However, we’re not completely without experience. Gamers go at it on both TVs and PCs, and have done so for years. Many people have DVD and CD players as part of their computer systems. Likewise, a TiVo set on your home entertainment center, which records televised programming onto computer hard disks, is a processor-driven storage system. Yet none of these demonstrate a link between a computer system and a home entertainment system.

My in-laws are always eager to try to the latest and greatest. I think they assumed convergence would be better. Now that home entertainment electronics are becoming digital (think DVD, HDTV, CD), linking the two kinds of systems is less difficult and less expensive, so why not give it a try? Other people might see this approach as risky, if not downright foolhardy.

What could be better?

Fortunately there are specific areas where convergence can be better; here are at least some of them.

Smart entertainment. At the head of the list is intelligence. Hooking up a computer and the power of software to a home entertainment system vastly widens the range of capabilities–more control, sophisticated personalization, access to supplemental information, and much more.

Storage. A contemporary computer system can have enormous storage capacity–enough for music, TV, and movies. More important, this is highly flexible and manageable storage, capable of powerful database capabilities (search, aggregation, modification, etc.).

Upgrade to specific components. Home entertainment systems usually bring bigger (if not better) screens and better sound to the party.

Creative license. The computer makes it possible to create, assemble, and modify all kinds of media and entertainment. It provides an interactive element. You can create your own music, add text, and edit movies. The home entertainment gear enhances the presentation.

Some people would also say that convergence will (eventually) be less expensive because it reduces redundancy; you only need one of some components, such as a DVD player, remote control, or even screen, assuming convergence gear will be in one location.

Location, location, location

Can you have a full-convergence, everything-in-one-place system? Sure. But it might be like gathering all your far-flung relatives into one room. It can be done, but would you want to? Right now most computer gear is physically separated from home entertainment gear. I would say that more often than not they aren’t even in the same room. That’s partly because of space requirements–entertainment gear is generally located where several people can use it at once; computer gear is for individual use. People also do work at the computer, which has a tendency to separate it from family entertainment areas.

I’m reminded of those ubiquitous clip-art images that have two or three people standing behind someone at a computer, all looking at the monitor, smiling, pointing, and enjoying the group experience. Right, for about two minutes of squinting, maybe. Technically, Web surfing can be done with either a home entertainment system (TV) or at a computer (with a monitor), but which one is most likely to be preferred? So how much convergence do you want, either physically or functionally? This is not an easy question, unless you have the discretionary money to buy multiple systems, and even then I’m not sure if the convergence can be managed.

Nothing’s perfect

Coming back to the Media Center systems, it is unfair to look at the initial commercial products as anything but a first attempt. It’s unreasonable to expect them to be perfect, especially since I don’t think we’re ready to define what “perfect” means. Still, they’re a starting point, and, of course, people will have opinions about how they do or don’t work.

From my hands-on experience, I’d say designers need to tackle the most likely combination: Most initial customers for a Media Center system are those who are already heavily invested in home theater. My in-laws have both a big-screen (42-inch) TV and a heavy-duty surround-sound system. Naturally, they want to connect this to the Media Center PC. They can, but as one wag put it, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to do this stuff, but you will become experienced in going ballistic.

Wiring is an obvious problem. Finding the right ports, connecting the right cables, and stringing those cables in a rational fashion is an exercise in making a cats-cradle with one hand. Give us Bluetooth (or something like Wi-Fi that links peripherals without wires), please. We don’t need no steenking cables! Wiring needs to be less complicated, more reliable, and a lot less messy. Choices such as whether you put your DVD and CD players through a home-theater receiver (sound system) or vice versa are not simple, but should be.

In many respects software will drive convergence because computer-based control and enhancement is so powerful. We’re talking about software that makes it easy to capture TV programs, produce pictures, or manipulate sound. However, the current interface between this software and the underlying hardware is not robust. If you stray from the path by introducing equipment or software not in the original package, good luck.

With the current Media Center systems, you’re essentially locked into the packaged hardware and software. If this solved most of the problems of integration and was truly simple to install and use, perhaps I’d be willing to trade away flexibility. A good model for comparison is the current state of home theater equipment, which offers either all-in-one (simple) or component (flexible) approaches. The first Media Center PCs haven’t attained a very high level for ease of use, and they’re not very flexible.

They also don’t address the issue of location–what gets done where. The obvious answer is a home network, preferably wireless, that allows people to put whatever functionality they want, anywhere they want. However, the current generation of Media Center PCs is not designed to be part of a distributed network of components.

Like I said, don’t ask too much of this first generation of Media Center PCs. There are substantial technical, functional, and design issues to be solved. Seamless convergence in the home is at least two or three years out. Still, for people with the cash and the exploratory inclination, I think the current Media Center PCs do offer some improved ways to use computers and home entertainment equipment. To coin a phrase, call it home entertainment on the cusp of convergence.

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