In the past 20 years, home entertainment has been revolutionized by digital technology, from DVD players for movies to CD players for music. Digital technology has ushered in a new era of audio and video quality and convenience for the consumer.
Separately, but at the same time, the personal computer has employed digital technology to revolutionize every aspect of business, from telecommunications to publishing to accounting. And even more recently, the network effects inherent to the Internet have made the personal computer even more important and more powerful.
With these two separate but related stories of change and revolution, an obvious question arises: will personal computing and home entertainment ever meet?
In this paper, we look at the problems faced by traditional digital home entertainment and we look at the opportunity for the PC to solve many of these problems. At the same time, we look at the PC and the problems that it faces in meeting the challenges of home entertainment.
Current Challenges to Digital Home Entertainment
The first and most visible challenge to home entertainment today is the complexity of setup. The entanglement of audio, video, coaxial, and power cables that lie behind every home’s entertainment system are the first sign of this. The array of different boxes and remote controls required for the average home entertainment system are another. The complexity of a home entertainment system grows exponentially, as the number of devices in that system grows. Will the consumer ever be able to use a new entertainment device by simply plugging it into the power outlet?
Another challenge faced by current digital home entertainment devices is that of distribution — in a world where devices are increasingly networked and devices talk to each other to exchange information, current consumer electronics devices fall short of interconnecting different devices together. Consumer electronics devices today are isolated islands of functionality, separate and standalone. With such isolation, can one remote control ever be programmed to control every device inside the house? Consumers are increasingly demanding “anytime, anywhere” access to entertainment, a trend evidenced in music by the popularity of compact digital audio players such at the Apple iPod. Consumer electronics devices must meet this consumer demand. Will consumers be able to watch TV on any screen inside the house, whether it’s the screen of the television in the living room, the screen of the television in the bedroom, the screen of a wireless web tablet or the screen of a cell phone?
Yet another challenge faced by consumer electronics devices is that of cost — the use of proprietary hardware for traditional consumer electronics devices results in higher costs to the consumer, especially when it comes to competing with lost-cow commodity PC hardware. With the introduction of new capabilities and new technologies, costs for consumer electronics devices can get particularly high. Take DVD-burning as an example — consumers will want the ability to transfer recorded TV shows and movies to DVD for archival and future viewing. Adding this feature to a proprietary hardware-based personal video recorder such as TiVo would require the consumer to purchase of a new piece of hardware — an expensive hardware upgrade.
Can the PC Help?
What aspects of the PC help to solve these critical problems faced by traditional consumer electronics devices? First and foremost, the PC is the ultimate ‘connected device’. The platform upon which the PC is built is one that lends itself to interconnectedness. Comprised of a variety of application programmer interfaces (APIs) and technology standards, the PC’s rich platform make it so that the PC natively works with other devices. Standard technologies in the PC platform such as USB, Firewire, 802.11, CD-RW and DVD recording make this interconnectedness possible. To the consumer, the PC’s platform and standards means that it’s always easy for the PC to talk to other devices — to any screen inside your house, to any remote control, to virtually any device inside the home.
PCs also solve the cost issue — PC hardware is extremely inexpensive due to the use of modular components and the economies of scale that apply across the entire PC industry. And because of the modularity inherent to PCs, new technologies become available to PCs at a much lower cost that they become available to traditional consumer electronics devices.
Let’s take a moment and look at existing scenarios inside the home for connected products. Take digital photography as an example — the consumer takes digital photographs using a digital camera, transfers those photographs to the personal computer hard disk. From the PCs hard disk, the photographs might make their way to a color printer, to an online photo printing service, or to grandma via e-mail. In all these scenarios, the PC is the central point, the hub if you will, and the PC enables new and powerful uses for photography. To take another example, let’s look at how digital audio is used today. The consumer rips audio CDs to the PC hard disk. From the PC hard disk, digital audio files may be used to burn additional audio CDs, they may be transferred to a portable MP3 player, like the Apple iPod, or they may be streamed to the home stereo system. Once again, we see the PC acting as the hub and we see the PC serving as an enabler for new and powerful consumer uses of media.
To the extent that connected homes exist today, PCs are at the center of them. And this trend will continue, moving the PC into more and more of a central role inside the connected home. The PC’s ability to effortlessly interconnect different devices and networks at a low-cost make it an ideal digital hub, an ideal solution to the major problems faced by traditional consumer electronics devices.
Challenges faced by the PC
The PC faces some challenges of its own in playing a central role in home entertainment. Some of these challenges are ones of consumer and market perception and others are challenges that fundamental to PC technology and application design.
One clear challenge faced by the PC has been stability and reliability — the blue screen of death is too familiar to PC owners and it, in fact, defines its own category of consumer frustration. What saves the PC on this front is Microsoft’s latest consumer operating system, Windows XP, and Microsoft’s new focus on security and stability. The latest version of Microsoft’s consumer operating system brings, for the first time, a stable operating system to the consumer desktop. The stability of Windows XP enables a new class of PC applications that require always-on functionality, stability, and robustness. As a market trend, this shift has only just begin to happen — applications such as home security, personal video recording, home automation will all benefit from the PCs new stability. Accordingly, the problem of PC stability and reliability has, in large, been mitigated.
Another challenge to the PC is simplicity — in order to succeed on the couch, in the living room, PC applications must emulate the design simplicity and familiarity of consumer electronics devices. Home entertainment applications running on the PC must look, feel and behave like consumer electronics devices. So, while the traditional user interface for the PC has been a mouse and keyboard, extending the PC into home entertainment will require the PC to adopt the remote control as a new input device. And applications must shift from multi-window presentation paradigms to large, simple, full-screen interfaces that can be controlled via remote control. As such, there is nothing that stops PC applications from being built with such simplicity — it just requires a shift in thinking on the part of applications designers.
TV Recording on the PC, a Starting Point
How can the PC begin to solve the problems faced by existing consumer electronics devices — problems of ease of use, interconnectivity and cost? What application will begin to move the PC to the center of home entertainment? The answer is PC-based personal video recording (PVR).
Personal video recording has been predicted to be, since the launch of the first PVR devices, one of the hottest consumer product categories. Customer affinity rates, sometimes shown to be in excess of 90%, have proven the appeal of PVR’s near video-on-demand capabilities (record a show, watch it later) and its live television management capabilities (pause, rewind, fast-forward live television). Forecasts of PVR sales have varied depending on the analyst involved, but actual sales figures have consistently fallen below the forecasts. In spite of high customer satisfaction rates, consumer sales of personal video recording (PVR) appliances has been low. Why aren’t more people buying PVR? With a product that consumers love, why hasn’t PVR had better success?
One of the biggest challenges to PVR has been price — existing proprietary hardware products require a significant investment, ranging from $300 to $1000, plus an expensive monthly subscription fee. PC-based PVR significantly lowers the cost to a consumer by leveraging the existing hard disk and processor found on the PC, thereby reducing the initial expense. Another challenge faced by the PVR category has been consumer education — from the perspective of someone who has never used a PVR before, the wonders of PVR are difficult to explain. Once the consumer begins to use PVR, however, once PVR gets in the door, the consumer and his PVR become inseparable. Bundled on a new PC as a software application, PVR can reach the consumer at minimal additional cost. With such a bundling strategy, the cost of getting PVR in the door, the cost of introducing consumers to PVR is low and accordingly, the problem of consumer awareness is greatly mitigated.
Existing consumer electronics devices suffer from the problems of being isolated and standalone in an increasingly networked world, of being complex to setup and use. The personal computer is the ideal platform to solve these problems and that will make the PC the center of home entertainment. And while the PC has problems of its own, several of these problems have been addressed in new PC technology, such as the problem of stability, and none of these problems poses a serious threat to the PC in home entertainment. With the consumer appeal of PVR products and the PCs low-cost and familiarity to consumers, the combination of the PC and PVR holds the promise of taking digital home entertainment and the digital home to the next level.
SnapStream Media’s Personal Video Station TV recording software enables consumers to record their favorite television shows to their PC hard disk. SnapStream Personal Video Station is also a media server that enables TV recordings to be simultaneously viewed on multiple devices inside the home. TV recordings made with SnapStream can be served from the PC to wireless web tablets, Pocket PCs, laptops, and home televisions. SnapStream combines the PCs low-cost, connectivity and power with the popularity of PVR and television to create a solution that delivers on promises of the digital home entertainment.