Digital takes control

Imagine the freedom to enjoy the contents of your PC anywhere in your home while all your assorted technology talks to each other in perfect harmony.

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By  Andrew Picken Published  January 22, 2004

Digital delights|~|intel-Digital-Home.jpg|~||~|Sitting back is the new leaning forward. As we move into a world of networked and converged technology, the remote control will take over from the mouse as the principal tool for orchestrating your PC. Allowing users to step out from behind their PCs and control their entertainment from all over the house is what Bill Gates describes as “seamless computing,” and it’s set to be massive. “PCs should no longer be considered only home-information centres,” says J.T. Wang, president of Acer Inc. “PCs are becoming the household hub for both information and entertainment in the new digital-home era.” If you consider how many remote controls are scattered around your living room, the majority will be for electronic devices built with one purpose in mind — entertainment. This represents the quickest way into consumer’s living rooms for PC manufacturers and many are now clamouring to adapt their products to become media or entertainment orientated. It is now fairly simple to download an MP3, film or digital photo onto your PC, but you don’t necessarily want to enjoy these sat in front of your PC. You want to watch the film and pictures on a TV or listen to your downloaded music on your stereo. The entertainment based PC acts as the nerve centre for all your digital content, which is then distributed throughout the home using wireless networking and adapters that connect to existing TVs and stereos. “Bringing the power of the PC to the digital home is going to be key to allowing consumers the ability to create, edit, store and stream their music, videos and photos to anywhere in the home,” says Louis Burns, vice president and general manager of Intel’s Desktop Platforms Group. ||**||Digital islands|~|hp-media-pc.jpg|~|The HP Media Center.|~|“Most of the content that used to be analogue is now digital and this is what makes it a natural move towards the digital home,” says Tanguy de la Horie, Intel’s marketing manager for the Middle East Turkey and Africa region. La Horie is touching on the plethora of digital devices, such as the MP3 player, that have emerged over the last decade — all of which are capable of communicating with your PC. Bringing PCs in from the cold and assimilating them into this digital revolution has been a complicated process. When information technology began to digitise in the late nineties, it occurred on digital ‘islands’ where content was developed and flowed within three isolated clusters of devices: PCs, consumer electronics and mobile devices. One good example of this digital divide is if you consider that your MP3 player can talk to your PC directly through the USB connection but cannot connect directly to your home stereo. Digital content in IT products, such as PCs and PDAs, is not easily merged with the content generated by entertainment products, such as digital cameras, and this has created communication barriers. Promoting the PC as a bridge between the digital ‘islands’ in consumers homes is crucial to the future of the PC industry. “The Information Entertainment Technology (IET) technology developed by Acer is based on the PC architecture, it integrates IT product functionality with consumer electronics product ease-of-use,” explains Jim Wong, president of Acer’s IT Products Business Group. “This bridging of the gap between IT and consumer electronics technology means digital content can now be transferred and exchanged through a network, and enjoyed on all devices.”||**||Convergence|~|intel-ceo.jpg|~|Intel corporation president and COO, Paul Otellini|~|The potential for entertainment PCs is huge and there can be no mistaking the fact that digital convergence has permanently blurred the lines between the IT and consumer electronics industries. “Computing power is extending rapidly from PCs and laptops into devices that permeate our everyday lives — home appliances, consumer electronics, automobiles, and more,” says William S. Osborne, vice president, Strategic Alliances and Standards, Pervasive Computing Division, IBM. “What used to be standalone devices now belong to a larger, interconnected, ecosystem.” His thoughts are echoed elsewhere in the industry. “The same dynamics that drove the PC revolution are moving to consumer electronics,” says Intel corporation president and COO, Paul Otellini. “As the world of consumer electronics and content shift from analog to digital, there is a great opportunity to advance the rate of improvement in performance, cost and integration of features in consumer electronics devices. Think of this as Moore’s Law applied to yet another industry.” One factor that will underpin the success of the entertainment PC, its killer app if you like, is a fast internet connection. A Broadband or ADSL connection allows users to quickly download digital content and opens a number of other opportunities. “Broadband internet connections, the home PC and wireless technology combined with the ability to share premium content wirelessly means in the future individuals will be able to watch first run movies at home the same day they premiere in the theatre,” says Otellini. The congruence between broadband and the entertainment PC is backed up by a 2003 Parks Associates Research report, which found that more than 67% of broadband customers in the USA find the concept of an entertainment server appealing. “If we look at what is happening in Europe, people are using ADSL to download their entertainment content,” says La Horie. “Once your movies are on your PC then you will want your PC to drive your TV or stereo. I think we should not underestimate the role of broadband.” The biggest issue with broadband in the Middle East is relatively low PC penetration and costly internet connections. “If you look at the offers of ADSL in most [Middle East] countries then it is still expensive, when the price of ADSL becomes very aggressive then this will boost this market like crazy,” claims La Horie. One aspect of the cost issue that does bode well for the region’s consumers is the decreasing prices of PC themselves. “Computing power as a whole is becoming less and less expensive,” explains Michael Hartmann, director of Windows Client Business Group, Microsoft EMEA. “The Middle East is a good example of where there has been dramatic price decreases for not just the PCs, but everything that surrounds it.” ||**||Current state of play|~||~||~|“The convergence has been going on for a while now,” says Thomas Greve, category manager, Desktops and Workstations, Personal Systems Group, HP Middle East. “We have seen PCs migrating from purely data devices to become more and more like multimedia devices. However, this is still only taking place in the study or in the bedroom. What we haven’t seen much of so far is the move where the PC moves into the living room.” There has been a similar sluggish start on the networking side of things, with wireless home networking still a long way from reaching critical mass in the consumer market. “There is a level of integration today that is primarily cable based,” says HP’s Greve. “The issue with wireless connectivity is that you have two standards. One is Bluetooth, which is a very personal connection, but in a limited range. The other is 802.11 [and] those wireless standards, so far, are only seeing adaptation in the commercial space. We are yet to see home users getting into it.” “I think when it comes to digital media we are pretty developed but if you think of digital communication, we are not where we should be,” claims Microsoft’s Hartmann. “For example, the vast majority of people do not have a seamless way of sharing contacts information. Your contacts on your cell phone may be different to your free e-mail account, it is not easy to share this information easily.” Another issue with the entertainment PC is that it does not sit in isolation and needs to be surrounded by a minimum of infrastructure. “An interesting part of the HP Media Center is the hook up between the PC and the content, in terms of video and audio,” explains Greve. “We have implemented the Media Center in the USA, UK and France. In those countries we have gone to the radio and TV stations to create a link so that when you buy the PC, you can automatically download listings, [then] use your PC to pre-record. “One of the limiting factors of taking these products into this region is that there are many small countries, so the media is scattered all over the place. Also, today there is no Arabic version of the software available.” It is understandable if consumers are cautious about digital convergence, just consider the cost of replacing all the consumer and IT technology in your home. “The issue is that you probably have a nice TV and you have put significant investment in it, will you be looking to replace it with a digital replacement?” asks La Horie, who calls on the IT industry to get behind the digital home initiative. The issue of connectivity with devices that are not wireless or digitally compatible remains though Intel is pushing its Digital Media Adaptor concept to manufacturers. The Digital Media Adapter acts as a wireless bridge between a PC and electronic device and Intel is trying to get manufacturers to build these adapters into their products from scratch. ||**||The issue of compatibility |~||~||~|'The act of moving towards a union’ is the dictionary definition of convergence and as the digitisation of the world gathers pace, the push for convergence has created the need for a cross industry standards body to govern this union. “The more sophisticated the devices, the stronger group of standards we need to make them work,” says Intel’s La Horie. The Digital Home Working Group and Internet Home Alliance are two such body’s that have pledged to create the conditions for establishing industry standards for the digital home. All the usual suspects are represented in these groups and so far they have avoided falling out, but with billions of dollars at stake watch this space. The IP family of protocols has been selected as the means to provide the foundation for the networking between the various sides of the digital divide and a number of new protocols are being developed in order to enable wirelessly shared copyrighted protected entertainment content. “One of the critical requirements for mass-market success of networked devices is true and reliable interoperability,” says Danielle Levitas, director of IDC’s Consumer Devices & Services Programs. “The Digital Home Working Group has proposed a sound and fair baseline of interoperability standards, which is an important milestone towards realising this vision.” One of the biggest proponents of digital convergence and the entertainment PC is Intel, which last month pledged to invest $200 million in companies developing hardware and software for the digital home. Intel has an obvious vested interest in the success of the digital home and has urged PC manufacturers to embrace all things digital and networked. “There are two encouraging things for us [Intel]. First is that it will create new markets and [secondly] these developments will also require a lot of processor power,” says La Horie. “Intel provides the silicon building blocks to develop and manufacture entertainment PCs. Whether and when these products will be available in the Middle East is up to the PC manufacturers.” One firm that has recently answered Intel’s war cry is Acer, which has joined the growing number of PC manufacturers ‘going digital’ with its comprehensive new range of IET products. Launching in the first quarter of 2004, Acer’s “home digital infotainment” line up will include five new products all designed on the premiss of cross-platform information and digital content sharing via a wireless home network. The ‘E’ prefix has become something of a cliché in the IT industry but Acer insists it still holds value and for its IET range, the E prefix stands for “empowering technology”. Much of the E range is based on existing Acer technology, which has been reconfigured to enable cross platform digital integration. One such product is the E Tablet, which boasts the full Centrino suite and an impressive 14.1” TFT LCD screen. Acer’s E PC follows similar lines, featuring an ‘instant on’ system that lets you access entertainment content without booting up the PC. The appetite for integrated entertainment based computing in the Middle East is still largely untested, but many industry experts remain confident. “The UAE will be the first one to cross the chasm,” predicts Intel’s La Horie. “Saudi will be very close and then Lebanon, Egypt and Oman will be next, but will probably be a bit slower on the take up.” HP’s decision not to release its Media Center in the Middle East is endemic of the problem that most manufacturers view the region as a fragmented market and are not always willing to commit their latest products. That aside, much of the integrated entertainment based technology is one or two years from fruition but we’ll keep you updated in coming issues of Windows. “A PC is much more than the classical notebook or desktop, in effect it is everything that has a computing power that stores information,” says Microsoft’s Hartmann. “If you take that as a definition for a PC and move that forward, you will see all these different form factors. Windows [operating system] is not just relevant for the classical desktop PC device but it is relevant for all devices and solutions that have computing power and some storage capabilities.” This type of lateral thinking about the capabilities of a PC will ensure its longevity and make its impact on our lives over the coming years even more profound than in the last decade. ||**||

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