Pundits have been predicting the demise of the personal computer in favor of the TV set-top box for more than a decade, but history has proven the PC to be very resilient with many homes owning more than one PC. While the PC as we know it won't be going away anytime soon, a new war may be opening up in the living room with Microsoft XBox360 and Sony PS3 facing off. Although the original XBox and Sony PS2 are already capable of running embedded XP or Linux, the lack of an adequate video display has kept these two ubiquitous devices and all other set-top boxes from becoming viable computing platforms.
One of the most common questions I get from people about display technology is "can I use my big screen TV as a computer monitor?" The answer has always been no because it would look very ugly. Anyone who has ever attempted to hook up the S-VHS video output to their big screen TV will be shocked to see how unreadable and distorted the display looks compared to a modern CRT or LCD monitor. The resolution on most TVs is a blurry 640x480 whereas the normal resolution on a modern PC display is usually at least 1024x768. Any attempt to read email or text document on a conventional TV set is sure to induce a headache and an eye sore. This is all about to change because of the arrival of relatively cheap high-resolution HD (High Definition) Plasma or DLP projection based TVs with digital inputs such as DVI or HDMI and analog inputs such as component or VGA inputs. Note that HDMI is essentially DVI with the addition of digital rights management and audio capability and is rapidly becoming the dominant standard in HD TVs and there are adapters that can convert DVI to HDMI.
While the definition of "high-resolution" can mean different things to different people, I'll define it as a minimum of 1280x720 moving all the way up to 1920x1080 with a perfect 1:1 pixel to screen aspect ratio. What that means is that 1280x720 resolution is perfectly proportional to 16x9 widescreen TVs. These 40 inch or larger HD TVs have seen a sharp drop in prices starting at $1500 for a DLP model to $6500 for the ultra-high resolution plasma display. Be aware that there are older plasma displays that use 1024x768 resolution stretched out horizontally to fit the 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio and will cause most computing applications to look "fat". The Sony PS3 is promising two digital HDMI outputs, but Microsoft has not clarified whether the XBox360 will have digital HD outputs or not but will at least have a VGA connector. While the VGA port is adequate and is used by most modern personal computers, DVI and HDMI are the future.
Once the XBox360 and PS3 become ubiquitous in the average first world country living room and give people another reason to adopt HD TVs along with the impending US conversion to the HDTV standard, a new computing platform for the living room will be born and the only question is who will be the victor. Sony is openly boasting that the Sony PS3 is really a full fledged computer and no longer a game console, but have opted to exclude a built-in hard drive in favor of an add-on hard drive bundled with Linux. Microsoft has been more silent on the computing issue with the XBox360, but I can't imagine that the thought of owning the living room computing market hasn't crossed Bill Gate's mind. Since the XBox360 is already most likely based on an embedded version of Windows XP, it wouldn't really be much of a stretch for Microsoft to come out with a trimmed down version of Microsoft Office for the XBox360 bundled with a Microsoft wireless keyboard and mouse. MSN Messenger and Windows Media player may already be bundled in to the XBox360. Sony is taking more of an add-on approach by bundling Linux with their hard drive accessory for the PS3. While it can be argued that this is a more versatile approach because the hard drive can be of variable size, I'm not entirely convinced that the average consumer is in the mood to boot up a separate operating system that isn't natively integrated in to the PS3. The average consumer wants to be able to flip from their favorite online game to their IM or email application in real-time, and not have to boot up a separate operating system. While the XBox360 may not have digital DVI or HDMI outputs, it won't keep it from becoming a viable computing platform. The lack of a built in hard drive and a native computer operating system on the Sony PS3 will in my opinion limit its usefulness as a viable consumer computing platform.
One other factor to consider is that Linux won't be exclusive to the PS3 since there will most likely be Linux variants designed for the XBox360's integrated hard drive which won't really need more than 4 gigabytes of storage to live in. The reason there will be interest in hacking the XBox360 to run Linux is because Microsoft is heavily subsidizing the XBox360 hardware to make money on licensing and Linux aficionados will be able to take advantage of that subsidy.
No one can be certain who will be the winner of the living room computer, but it is certain that we will be witnessing the birth of a new computing platform within the next few years.