Media Center

The battle for the living room is heating up according to the Associated Press and in 2006 we can expect over one billion dollars to be spent promoting technologies aimed at bringing mainstream computing into our living rooms.

Microsoft Media Center has been an effective solution allowing the PC to take center stage in the living room and it has met with modest success. Still the limiting factor in allowing true mainstream adoption of Media Center is the difficulty in setting up and configuring a PC and the need to constantly sweep it for viruses, spyware and other maladies. Until these faults are worked out, Media Center will remain a fringe product allowing techies and college students to enjoy the benefits of TiVo without a separate TiVo box.

The PC makers have longed to get into our living rooms for years but just haven been successful.

Most companies haven’t taken close enough notice of the what’s behind Apple’s iPod success, says Rob Enderle, an analyst at the Enderle Group research firm.

"Most of the technology products being thrown at the home market aren’t particularly attractive or well priced, and ease of use isn’t anywhere in their description," he said. "Until that gets fixed, we’re going to have some serious problems."

People are simply tired and frustrated by computers that take too long to boot, crash, get infected by viruses and demand constant updates with security patches.

Why would they want such a thing controlling their entertainment? Old set-top boxes supplied by cable and satellite TV companies may be dumb and slow but at least they’re low maintenance.

Intel’s solution is Viiv, a hardware and quality assurance platform that’s expected to be launched in the first part of the year. As Intel did with its Centrino brand for notebooks and Wi-Fi hot spots, it will make sure Viiv-stickered PCs, gadgets, services and content play well with one another.

Viiv-branded PCs, not surprisingly, will include Intel chips that should enable smaller and more appealing cases, said Eric Kim, Intel’s chief marketing officer. "Until now, devices (media servers) were PC-like devices with fans, a tower, and lots of noise, and people don’t want that in their living rooms," he said.

Microsoft too is going to come out swinging with its new Vista Media Center Edition of Windows that supports CableCARD allowing TV viewing without a set-top box. Although the government has prodded the cable industry to allow such cards to be used instead of set-top boxes there are still channels that cannot be accessed without the ubiquitous cable box.
So these advances can be considered a step in the right direction for Intel and Microsoft and the billion dollars of marketing referenced earlier in this article describe the budget for 2006 for both Vista and Viiv ads.

Apple too is widely expected to become a force in the home entertainment field and if you had to place your bet on someone you would be safe to put it behind the company that changed the MP3 market and owns iTunes.

Apple has such a strong hook into the consumer electronics and entertainment spaces it is tough to imagine anyone else taking this away from them. As Apple computers begin to embrace Intel chips in the future it is possible the two companies will collaborate to introduce truly leading-edge products and services that will leverage the best of computers and home entertainment.

So the lowly set-top box is facing fierce competition from the computer makers. To date the set-top companies haven’t had to deal with computer companies as a major threat as their products were easy to use and just plain worked.

In my opinion they will have to worry when Apple gets into the game in a more serious way. The cable box reminds me a lot of the MP3 player before Apple came onto the scene. Few people paid attention to them, they were unglamorous and taken for granted.

Apple will undoubtedly come out with a product at a nice price point that ends in 99 and call it something fancy that starts with an i. Apple is already dabbling in this market and rumors abound that the company will enter more seriously next year. I for one expect such a device and expect it to do well.

If Apple becomes the leader in the Media Center market then who do they have to compete with? Scientific Atlanta a leader in the cable box market was just acquired by Cisco.

So if the PC is going to compete with the cable box then these two titans are going to be in for a long bloody fight. I for one have seen Microsoft and everyone else try to take Apple out these last few years and nothing seems to work. I think Apple is firmly entrenched in the consumer electronics space and if they don’t screw it up they will make serious inroads into the home entertainment market as well.

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