Will the 'information furnace' engulf the PC?

The time may come when a home media server replaces the PC.

COMMENTARY--During their 20-plus years of evolution, PCs have gone through several application phases, each of which drove a major wave of growth. At first, only hobbyists interested in computers for their own sake bought them. Then came the business applications, when most consumers bought PCs either for home-based businesses or for doing office work at home. Next came games. Most recently, e-mail and Web browsing have been the driving force.

The next big wave, which has been building over the past two years, is the PC

as media machine. In this role, the PC becomes the repository and access device for photos, music, and video, driving it much deeper into the lives of consumers.

This idea isn't new. In earlier eras, multimedia PCs and entertainment PCs were touted as new categories of computers. What is new is that entry-level PC technology has reached a point where even the least expensive systems have the capability in processor speed, memory, storage, and connectivity to perform admirably in most of these roles.

PCs are so effective as music machines they're threatening the economic structure of the music industry. Eventually, the industry will create business models that allow online distribution of music while still fairly compensating artists and the recording companies. One way or another, computers as music machines are here to stay.

For digital-camera users, PCs have become the center of their photo activity. You can get prints without using a PC, but if you want to save the digital data, the PC is the only realistic solution. PC screens are great for viewing photos, and inkjet printers do a remarkably good job printing them. Digital-camera shipments are still small, but they're growing rapidly. Within a few years, most PC owners will be using digital cameras.

Video is the most demanding form of media because of the very high data rates required for good quality. Short, low-resolution video snippets are well within the capability of today's PCs, but TV-quality video of any length fills up even a large hard drive pretty quickly. And because quality video requires so much data, it isn't yet being passed around much on the Internet. But its time will come, as hard drives continue to increase in size and broadband Internet connections become commonplace.

PCs aren't the only devices that can handle digital media. Pocket PCs and Palm handheld computers can serve as photo albums or music players, and they can even play low-rate video. Among dedicated digital-media devices, MP3 players have been the most successful.

The growth of digital appliances could threaten the role of the PC, but it's more likely to strengthen it. MP3 players and handheld computers are really PC accessories; they typically depend on the PC for connectivity, backup, and extended storage.

In the future, it's possible that a home media server, combined with thin-client terminals on a high-speed network, could displace the PC. You could put the media server in a closet or basement, leading some to call it the "information furnace." It could be always on and always connected to the Internet, acting not only as the home's digital-media storage vault but also making its content available from the Internet (with appropriate security, of course).

This, combined with an assortment of media appliances, has a lot of technical appeal. Business realities, however, make it far more likely the PC will be a long-running stand-in for the role of home media server. Its momentum is very hard to fight. The PC industry's high volumes deliver incredible cost-effectiveness, and there's a great deal of inertia among PC users; they aren't going to switch to another solution without a compelling reason. A home media server could be a great addition to a home network, but few consumers are likely to spend the money unless there's a huge, tangible benefit.

One big question is how digital media will evolve in the living room. New-era hi-fi equipment will play digital music without requiring a PC. Televisions are becoming increasingly digital, and eventually, streaming video from the Internet will replace broadcast television. And as more and more people switch to digital cameras, they'll want to view their pictures in the living room, not just at the PC.

In the long run, the proliferation of devices that will draw on the PC as a media server will raise demand to a point where users will be driven to buy a dedicated server because the PC will become bogged down by its server role. Only then will the PC begin to fade as the center of the consumer's media world.

michael@mslater.com