Why PCs will conquer home entertainment

Media PCs will be cheaper and more feature-filled than anything from the consumer electronics industry.

COMMENTARY--There are three ways to look at the future of home-entertainment technology.

One supposes that the PC will maintain its role as a work tool, but also become your primary entertainment device. The second supposes that your existing entertainment system will continue to reign over the living room, and the PC will play only a supporting role. The third presumes that nothing changes, and PCs continue pretty much as they have.

Two years from now, I firmly believe we'll be able to use a PC or PC-like device to record television programs and then stream those programs wirelessly to TV monitors around the home. We'll be able to do the same with music, photos, home video, and other types of media.

If this works out as I expect, the 2004 home PC will include multiple cable-ready TV tuners, an FM stereo tuner, an Internet radio tuner, and access to the MP3s, digital photos, and movies stored on your hard disk or played from the CD/DVD drive. It may also have a satellite tuner add-on; I'd be surprised to see an AM radio tuner, because of the electrical interference the computer creates. With this system you'll be able to use as much or as little of your current home theater/stereo system as you choose.

Household streaming
Take, for example, the following fictional--but quite possible--scenario: I connect the audio from my computer to my existing Sony amplifier, the S-video output to my home-theater system. I continue to use my existing 32-inch Sony TV set and speaker system. In the other rooms of the house, I connect a set of powered speakers to a second, wireless-enabled desktop PC, running the S-video line directly to that system's monitor.

These computers will use 802.11g (or, less likely, 802.11a) to wirelessly transmit entertainment around the house. I'll likely have some sort of adapter sitting between that wireless net and my home-entertainment gear, converting video and sound from around this home net into the digital or analog form the TV monitor and speakers can use. The adapter will also need to transmit remote-control signals back to the family-room PC, so I can control the stuff streaming into each node.

Such remote wireless devices have already been prototyped and should be on the market before year-end 2003. But the first generation may be 802.11b only, meaning a speed bump to 802.11g or 802.11a will be required before real usability is achieved. The "b" units are fine for music and still images, but not for the TV and video streams I predict will drive this market.

Then there's the Microsoft issue. The first versions of its Windows XP Media Center Edition don't support wireless streaming. While Microsoft has not said when wireless streams and the ability to support multiple remote "clients" will become part of the OS, I am expecting it within the next 12 to 18 months. The longer this takes, however, the more likely it is to be folded into Longhorn, the next version of Windows, which could come out as late as 2006. On the other hand, the longer Longhorn takes...well, you get the idea.

When a PC is not a PC
It's important that we forget about what a PC is "supposed to be" when thinking about home-entertainment applications. In my fictional scenario, the PC is merely a box that runs a more-or-less standard Microsoft or Apple operating system and thus can run standard applications wherever you want. This contrasts to a dedicated box, perhaps from a consumer-electronics company, that has limited or no basic PC functionality and is an entertainment-only device.

Note, please, that I've said nothing about form factors. Over time, I suspect these systems will morph to match the look and feel of the home-entertainment equipment of the day and won't look very much like personal computers at all. Microsoft's Media Center Edition devices are already headed in this direction.

Thus, people who say, "I can't imagine a PC in my home-entertainment center," probably won't have to. But they may want to get used to having a wireless keyboard and mouse sitting on the coffee table, ready to control something that looks like a home theater but also runs Word and browses the Internet if need be.

As for gaming, I do expect the next-generation home PCs to include gaming functions. Or, alternatively, next-generation game consoles will include non-game-related entertainment capabilities such as TiVo-like digital video recording. I am not sure precisely when this will occur, but the technology already exists.

Consumer devices can't beat the PC
I find these possibilities exciting in part because they could deliver more home-entertainment functionality for less money. (You know I have been doing this job for too long when I talk about "home-entertainment functionality" and not just "fun.")

I'm also excited about being able to access a single library of music or video all over the house. I look forward to having perhaps a terabyte of storage scattered around my home, all acting as a fully-mirrored media library, accessible from wherever I find a broadband link to the Internet and my home network.

I believe the PC industry is better able to provide this technology, at lower cost and with greater functionality than the consumer-electronics industry. But I recognize the two are merging in some places, so I should actually say that the PC-industry model of interoperable hardware and binary-compatible software will provide this technology more effectively than the CE industry's penchant for closed boxes and proprietary features. /I>