The other day Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams posted what he considered to be the future of "home server" systems:
If you're wondering where the next economic boom will come from, I think it will involve a central computer for your home that handles all of your entertainment, home controller, and computing needs.
I came to this conclusion while searching for a home system that would deliver recorded TV shows and music (iTunes) to several rooms in the house, with each room controlling its own content. I was surprised to learn that no such thing exists.
It would be nice if this hypothetical system also controlled my lights and video games and security and heat and AC. I'd love it if all of my entertainment content could be downloaded from the Internet. And it should be networked with my home computers and automatically back itself up over the network. That would be spiffy.
The closest thing on the market is a so-called home media center that will distribute movies, music, and your own content to multiple rooms. It's not yet integrated with a whole home DVR to handle all of your normal television viewing. It doesn't handle lights, video games, security, heat, AC, or home computing. And it doesn't back itself up over the Internet. Plus it is crazy expensive. So there's a long way to go.
Scott believes that a system like this will have an Apple logo on it:
I assume Steve Jobs will be the one to create this system if he has another act left in him. If he does it right, the only other computers you would need for your home would be laptops. The rest of your home computing would be handled by your home server. All you would need in each room of the house would be a monitor - that's the TV in most rooms - and a keyboard or mouse. Or perhaps by then your phone will act as a universal remote.
While my inner geek would love to play with a system like the one that Scott is talking about, my experience with such convergent technology tells me that any such system would be a massive DRM and vendor lock-in, and would ultimately be disappointing. Why? Let's just look at a few of the reasons why.
Note: It's worth pointing out that systems very similar to what Scott wants already exists. One company to look at would be AMX, but you'll need some really serious dough. It doesn't do everything that Scott wants so technically he's right that the system he wants doesn't exist, but it does a lot.
The first roadblock is DRM. I can't begin to imagine the mess of DRM that would have to go into a system that could handle all your media, from iTunes downloads to cable TV to ripped DVD and Blu-ray discs. Throw into the mix media such as ebooks and audio books and you have a real legal and technical mess.
Then there's the vendor lock-in side of things. A system that could control your lights, your security system, and your heating and AC is going to rely on a lot of proprietary gear. Not only would this likely to be pricey but if you later discovered that the system didn't do what you want or work in the way you wanted it to work, you've made a really expensive mistake that's hard to back out of.
Then there's the setup. It's highly likely that a system that hooks into your lights, your security system, and your heating and AC is going to require professional installation. That's going to add significantly to the price and unless you're building a new house, integrating this kit into an existing property is going to mean ripping out kit that works and replacing it.
The bottom line is that the kind of system that Scott wants is a long way off. Partly because the millionaire cartoonist market is rather small, but mostly because such a system wouldn't be compatible with the needs of most home users who will want to add new hardware (such as iPods, digital cameras and so on) to the mix regularly.
One thing that I'm certain of is that a system such as the one that Scott is describing won't have an Apple badge on it. Why? Well, the company is having enough problems selling the Apple TV and is unlikely to venture into an area where it's trying to push very specific hardware aimed at a tiny market. That's not a path paved with billions of dollars.