One box to rule them all

Soon all your TV, music and games will be stored on a home media server. And there's very big money at stake in the race to develop one
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The Independent Online

When the brains behind TiVo went to look for venture capitalists to invest in their idea – to use hard discs to record, store and index intelligently everything in the home, from TV to music to camcorder footage – they would explain that they wanted to get into the home media server business.

The money men kept rolling their eyes. "Listen," one eventually told them, "nobody understands that. Why don't you just focus on one thing, like TV? People can get their heads around that."

So that is what the founders of TiVo did. They made their pitch one day about building a hard disc-based system (generically called a Personal Video Recorder, or PVR) that records TV, and learns your likes and dislikes. And the venture capitalists funded them. But now, the people at TiVo – in common with some very much bigger and better-known names, such as Microsoft, Apple, Sony and Samsung – are ready to think bigger. Much bigger.

You remember the browser wars? Seven years later, welcome to the home media server wars, where the battle is for control of everything that goes on in your house, particularly the TV and music you watch and listen to. It's the fight to control that space underneath your TV set.

The question is: will non-computer or computer companies win the battle to serve your home?

Although nobody agrees exactly what a home media server should do, it's becoming clear that it should be able to handle all the TV channels coming into your house, as well as your (digital) music collection, DVD player and any other thing that isn't itself a computer. What's made this possible is the plummeting cost of hard discs able to store hours of TV and audio in compressed form; 1 Gbyte equals an hour of TV, so a 60 Gb disc (as on the upcoming TiVo 2) can store nearly three days of TV, or two days and 150 CDs in MP3 format. And the price of storage is roughly halving every year. Suddenly, the question is not "Why should I control all these boxes from one place?", but "Why on earth are all these digital devices – PC, CD player, DVD player, and PVR – separate?"

The ideal would be to be able to control and watch TV, listen to your CDs, and watch your camcorder or other footage on a screen anywhere in the house. No fiddling with mice, device drivers or DLLs; just a point-and-click remote control. The good news is, it's coming.

Late last year, Jerel Whittingham, an analyst at Durlacher, reported that PVRs will "eventually amount to one of the biggest changes in conventional broadcasting since the industry began. The majority of programming will be recorded in the home and accessed at will." He also noted, however, that "broadcasters' current business models and revenue streams will be threatened and the role of the traditional channel will be undermined".

Add a couple of plugs in the back to play to your hi-fi (which will be there anyway for home cinema, because you have a built-in DVD player – remember?) and bingo, a home media server. Add Ethernet to your house and you can roam around. The devices are appearing now: the Rio Receiver lets you listen to your MP3s anywhere in the house, via a phone jack or Ethernet; it costs about £160. More importantly, the only time you have to deal with a PC is to get the music on to it. After that, you can just use the remote.

Speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last month, Bill Gates was clearly alluding to the concept when he demonstrated several new Microsoft tools that will intelligently switch between channels, handle phone calls and video messages, and bind the Web and all the rest of your home entertainment together. Earlier that day, Steve Jobs had been telling the Apple faithful in San Francisco that his company was ideally poised to make computers that are the "digital hub" of the home, able to handle music, photos, camcorder footage and burn DVDs. "We've now got the complete digital hub for the complete digital lifestyle," Jobs said.

Yet both Gates and Jobs still seem wedded to a future where the PC is the most important digital item in the house, rather than one which may be an adjunct to something less powerful, but more useful because it has more easily accessible content.

By contrast TiVo, Samsung, Sony and a new entrant, Moxi, are demonstrating those dumb-but-powerful boxes right now. At CES, TiVo announced a tie-up with Real Networks in which US buyers get Real's music subscription service. Moxi incorporates a DVD, a PVR with digital music facility, and an Ethernet (cable) connection. Samsung has unveiled a home server; Sony is there, too – and there are whispers that it will this month announce a use for the broadband Ethernet connections on the back of the PlayStation 2.

Microsoft, of course, has a DVD player with a hard disk beneath many TVs already – the Xbox games console. And many commentators see that turning into something more like a media server than has been admitted so far.

At CES, Gates announced "Freestyle", which will give a remote control for PCs "letting you get at browsing, e-mail and all the digital media experiences" through a simplified, wireless remote control using any available screen including the TV as a control.

But doing that requires getting the PC to talk to the TV sensibly, and this may be where companies like Microsoft and Apple are hampered in their efforts.

"We are sceptical that PC-based approaches will find much of a market outside of the real PC technology enthusiast," noted Whittingham at Durlacher. Why? Because it's difficult, whereas TV and hi-fi is easy. PC companies come from the wrong direction: they think about adding features, and complexity, whereas companies building for TV and hi-fi have to think relentlessly of simplicity – or what Mike Lynch, of the software house Autonomy, describes as "always building with Homer Simpson in mind". And how often do you see Homer using his computer rather than his TV?

Andrew Cresci, vice-president of TiVo in Europe, says that what will distinguish the winners in the coming wars is the quality of the software the user deals with. "Anyone will be able to sell you a PVR," he says. "But what matters is how easy it is to set up to record a programme, or record every episode of it that's coming up, or find other programmes or music that are like it, or play one track back or find tracks that are like that." Let the battle commence.

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