That's PC Entertainment!

Gone are the days when vendors ambitions stretched no further than putting a PC on your desk. Now they've got other places they want it to go. WINDOWS MIDDLE EAST looks at the rise of the entertainment PC

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By  Matthew Wade Published  November 23, 2004

That's PC Entertainment!|~|COnvergence-main.jpg|~|Convergence concerns the coming together of the power of your PC and the different electronic entertainment devices in your home|~|Gone are the days when vendors ambitions stretched no further than putting a PC on your desk. Now they've got other places they want it to go. Windows Middle East looks at the rise of the entertainment PC Imagine a home where you can control all your entertainment devices at the touch of a button, where every electronic device works together, and where you can access all your digital content wherever you like. That imagination is reality: you're looking at the home of the past. Admittedly, a very recent past, but visitors to this year's Gitex might have been forgiven for thinking they had wandered in to some sort of ideal home show by mistake: so many vendors stands having been done up to look like digital dwellings. After considerable hype in the past six months or so, the digital home idea has arrived with a vengeance in the Middle East. Or at least one part of it. Convergence It's called convergence: the coming together of the power of your PC and the different electronic entertainment devices in your house. In itself, this is nothing new; it has been possible for some time to download an MP3, watch a film, or look at a photo on your PC, but you didn't necessarily want to do these activities sat in one place looking at a beige box. What the digital home is all about is accessing all the different content that you have on various electronic devices through the nerve centre of the PC and then distributing them through the home through such mediums as a wireless network. "The digital home is now coming closer to reality than ever before," says Sam Al-Schamma, Intel's general manager for the GCC. "It's all about unleashing the content that you have locked up in one corner of your room and releasing it to consumer electronic devices." Intel has been one of the main proponents of the digital home concept, and has been actively involved (along with other industry giants such as HP, IBM, Sony and Philips) in the setting up of a working group to establish industry standards for the sharing of digital content between consumer electronics, PCs and mobile devices. These three categories of devices have effectively developed in isolation from each other: you can link your MP3 player to your PC through the USB connection but it can't be so easily linked to your home stereo. In Intel's vision the PC will be the bridge between these different devices. "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, vides and photos to anywhere in the home," Louis Burns, vice president and general manager of Intel's Desktop Platforms Group said earlier this year. The digital home is in fact a strategy that Intel has been pursuing for several years now, and Al-Schamma admits that it is still not entirely there yet. "It will be the next year or so, but its definitely usable now," he claims. "Now you can download a movie, but it might take you four hours. In the future, you could get your PC to download the film when it becomes available, so you can watch it when you want. That's not here yet, but it soon will be." Entertainment options What is available now is a number of different PCs that are being billed as media center or entertainment PCs. Vendors such as Acer, Everex and Fujitsu Siemens have all launched machines in this region in recent months that fit this billing, with other vendors also looking to introduce models in the Middle East. Acer was one of the first vendors off the mark in the region with the launch of the Acer Aspire RC500 PC (reviewed in Windows Middle East, July 2004) and it has just launched another model, the Aspire RC950. This allows the user to choose between seven different entertainment "modes" including internet radio, TV and CD/MP3 player. Sanjay Kachroo, business development manager for Acer Middle East's desktop PCs unit, says the RC950 is another step towards the ehomes concept, which Acer has been espousing for the past year or so. "You can now replace almost all the gadgets in your living room with a single device," he claims. "Strategically, we're moving towards the ehome concept, where you have all the devices operated by a single, universal remote control. If you're near the TV, it operates the TV, if you're near the refrigerator, it operates the refrigerator. Right now, we're about 60 to 70% towards that concept, but we're getting there," he says. Acer has based its devices on Microsoft's Windows XP Home operating system, rather than the software giant's Media Center operating system. While there are machines available in the region that support Media Center, most notably Everex's Consumer Electronics PC (see Windows, August 2004) Microsoft is holding off on a formal release of the OS in this region - at least for now. Mazen Shehadah, product marketing manager for Microsoft South Gulf, says there is not currently a localised version of Media Center available, and there are also issues to do with the Electronic Program Guide (EPG), which the OS uses to find out TV programme details. The OS has not yet been launched in all European countries, with even comparatively big markets like Spain still waiting, so it is a question of time, he says. Media Center is a key product for Microsoft however. At the high-profile launch of Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 in Las Vegas, US, in October, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates described it as "at the heart of Microsoft's vision to offer people around the world the best in complete, connected, entertainment experiences." Microsoft, like Intel, had a digital home theme to its stand at Gitex this year, and Shehadah insists that Media Center will benefit users in the region. The software company is currently talking to real estate companies in Dubai interested in large scale implementations. "They're talking about 5,000 to 10,000 PCs required for each project," he claims. While Dubai, with its booming real estate market, and high PC penetration, may seem likely to embrace the digital home concept, surely other countries in the Middle East are much less likely to move in this direction? Intel's Al-Schamma admits that this can be a problem but argues that "while the PC penetration is low in the region, but what you find is that where people do have PCs in the region, then their take-up of technology is very high," he says. As an example, he points out that wireless technology (itself a key component for the digital home) sells very well in Saudi Arabia, with many users adopting the more advanced 802.11g standard already. Intel has also worked with Saudi ISP Awalnet to set up a digital home "ibundle" for consumers. In collaboration with Active Mania, a developer of digital home and interactive TV solutions, Awalnet's DSL subscribers in the Kingdom are being offered a package of services including multimedia on demand, online TV shopping, single and multiplayer gaming and news and weather services. The service is being rolled out to consumers in Riyadh initially but will be extended to other cities in the Kingdom. Market acceptance Which is all well and good, but it is sales of multimedia PCs that the vendors are really looking for. Miran Ellahee, marketing manager at retailer Plug-ins Electronix, says that the Everex and Acer systems have attracted considerable attention in the store, but many consumers still seem reluctant to buy: "Sales are still small right now but it is an area where we do see huge potential," he claims. "A lot of customers do look but they don't know too much about it and they tend to shy away. I would say the consumer would still like to see a bit more information." Paul Gamboa, consumer products manager at Fujitsu Siemens' Middle East operations, acknowledges that users sometime need a bit of educating about entertainment PCs: "I guess it's the concept of the device being all in one that people don't understand," he says. Fujitsu Siemens has recently launched its Scaleo C small form factor PC, which combines multimedia functions with a standard PC. Buyers of the entertainment PC concept are going to be replacement buyers primarily, Gamboa says: "The PC as a PC is no longer the primary purpose for buying it," he claims. "In the replacement market people are either going to buy a notebook or they are going to buy an entertainment PC." Others are more skeptical. "If you look at a technology like wireless, then wireless penetration is very minimal around here and that is a technology that is very advanced," says Tamer Odeh, consumer category manager, HP Middle East, Imaging and Printing Group. "It was a tough time to get people to convert from analogue cameras to digital, people needed time to get used to the concept. People won't just dump everything they have and buy everything new but in the future we will see a very high rate of conversion," he says. HP is looking to commission research on the convergence market in the region, although it has already said it is planning to launch its own Media Center PC here in the next few months. "You can actually do all of this stuff right now if you are a computer geek," says Odeh. "If you are so inclined its easy enough to add a hard drive to your PC, MP3 files have been around for years and so on. What is happening now is that people are simplifying the whole process: now you can do it out of the box almost." It may be a while before we are truly ready to all sit down in front of our PCs and live our multimedia lifestyles, but that time may not be too far off. At least if the PC vendors get their way. And anyway, there's always next Gitex.||**||

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