Thursday, October 06, 2005

Sacred Cow: Media Center

The world of IT is always in search of the Next Big Thing. Every department has its own, the new technology or concept that is supposed to instantly become a killer feature and make a lot of money for its makers by virtue of everybody buying one.

The one currently touted by the PC hardware scene is the media center. It's been around the block a few times, but was given a new lease on life by the announcement of the new generation game consoles. The idea is that these things will take over the living room, providing full functionality and replacing the DVD/DVR/audio stack. You may remember (vaguely) the Sony PSX, a PlayStation 2 with a hard drive and a broadband connection. It was released, too - in Japan. Now tell me: do you actually know anybody who owns one, or has at least seen one?

The PS3 and Xbox 360 are supposed to be good at this sort of thing because of their muscle. Games these days need kick-ass graphics, and consoles are at a significant disadvantage here because the initial architecture needs to account for five years of adequate output, which in IT terms is an eternity. With PCs, you can always release a game meant for the latest, greatest hardware: people may not upgrade as much as you'd think, but at any one time a significant percentage of the user base has just gotten themselves a new toy. So the consoles are using shiny technology which promises truly magnificent things. As gaming devices, the PS3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Revolution are going to succeed wildly.

As media centers, they will fail miserably.

Media center PCs have failed for the same reason. It has to do with the fact that you cannot make a universal device. You just can't. My Archos Gmini 400 is a half-decent mp3 player, although if I was really after music I'd probably get a Creative Zen Micro, because it looks better and sounds better. I got the Archos because it's also a functional - but not very good - video player. (Actually the real reason I got it was because it's got 20gb of storage and mounts as a generic USB drive. The killer feature has nothing to do with its primary or secondary functions. Go figure.) I was willing to trade off for the extra ability, but in the portable device market, the user faces an insurmountable constraint. Whatever you get, you need to be able to carry.

In the world of living room equipment, the manufacturer cannot count on something like that. Space is decidedly not a limiting factor; the sort of person who is truly distressed by fiddly knobs and messy wiring will be too embarassed to prominently display an Xbox; they probably own a Mac Mini. The market for game consoles that wish to transcend their natural boundaries is that of early adopters and gadget lovers, and in all likelyhood they already own specialized equipment whose capabilities far outweigh anything even the mighty Cell chip can conjure up.

Plus consoles are hugely expensive; for the $400 a proper Xbox will cost, you can get a decent DVD player and home stereo system which will be much, much easier to use. Even compared to a wireless controller.

5 comments:

Mat Hall said...

Guess what, I'm going to disagree with you again. :D

Media center PCs have failed for the same reason.

I beg to differ. For starters it's waaaay too early to claim they've failed, and it's going to be something of a silent and steady encroachment rather than everyone throwing away their VCRs and DVD players. Nowadays, whether you like it or not, if you buy a PC from a high-street retailer it will most likely have "media centre" functionality, and once people realise that they can do away with their hifi, TV, DVD player, VCR, etc., they won't replace those devices when they reach the end of their servicable lives, they'll just switch to using the PC. Give it another 3 or 4 years and the notion of a single-purpose bit of home entertainment kit is going to seem quaint.

Plus, of course, the TV is losing its place as the primary object of fixation in the home and the PC is creeping up on it from behind; the number of hours of TV people watch these days has dwindled, and as video on demand becomes a practical reality the PC or networked console is inevitably going to play a significant part in the process.

As to consoles just being used as consoles, don't forget that DVD players are soon to be replaced with DVD-HD or BluRay, and if someone's already spent $400 on a console that plays the new format they may well not bother buying an additional bit of kit to do the same thing. The situation is very different this time -- with the PS2 and XBox, DVD players had been out for a while before the consoles appeared so lots of people would already have one and therefore stick with that for viewing purposes; however, the PS3, Revolution, and XBox 360 may well appear before mass-market stand-alone players, which puts a whole different dynamic on proceedings...

...you can get a decent DVD player and home stereo system which will be much, much easier to use.

Have you ever used XP Media Center Edition (or Media Center Extender on an XBox)? It's a damned sight easier than trying to program your VCR or hunt through a big stack of CDs because you want to listen to a single track from a particular CD (especially if you can't remember what CD it was on) -- big buttons to just straight to playing a DVD, watching TV, listening to music, looking at pictures, or watching something you recorded earlier, and with a clean and simple menu that even my grandmother has managed to use successfully!

On a final note, devices like TiVo may bring the "media centre PC" into the home from the other direction -- instead of buying a PC with added media capabilities, you've got what is ostensibly a media device but that has most of the components of a PC inside; it's not too much of a stretch to imagine future models of TiVo will feature some non-media related functions...

Flasher T said...

"Guess what, I'm going to disagree with you again. :D"

And I do appreciate it. :)

"it's waaaay too early to claim they've failed, and it's going to be something of a silent and steady encroachment rather than everyone throwing away their VCRs and DVD players."

They've had their chance - they've been around for years! I'm sure the market share will continue to increase somewhat, but they will never be mainstream.

"they won't replace those devices when they reach the end of their servicable lives, they'll just switch to using the PC."

Home electronics have a lot of servicable life. My parents' Samsung TV, already an old model when they bought it, has been working fine for over a decade. The combination of commodity prices (not for TVs but for playback devices) and simple structure - there isn't that much that can go wrong, unlike a PC - mean that MCPC manufacturers cannot rely on wedging themselves into an upgrade cycle.

"Plus, of course, the TV is losing its place as the primary object of fixation in the home and the PC is creeping up on it from behind;"

Uh-huh, and I fail to see how people will in the future prefer to use the PC in the living room. Big screens and wireless keyboards are nice toys, but you can't very well work with a PC from your Lazy Boy. (I've tried.)

"The situation is very different this time -- with the PS2 and XBox, DVD players had been out for a while before the consoles appeared so lots of people would already have one"

Actually the situation is quite similar, in fact the previous generation had the advantage of there being a lot of content already out on DVD. This time around, you have competing standards, both of which are proprietary to a large corporation. If Sony and Toshiba expect Blu-Ray and HD DVD to go anywhere, they will quickly commoditize the playback equipment and make their money by taking a licensing fee from every disc sold.

"big buttons to just straight to playing a DVD, watching TV, listening to music, looking at pictures, or watching something you recorded earlier, and with a clean and simple menu that even my grandmother has managed to use successfully!"

All well and good, but how did the content get there in the first place? You still need to get up and insert the DVD, and a DVD player has no boot time - just press Play. Basically it's the same with any application; you can make it work fairly well, but not really well, not as well as a good standalone device.

Mat Hall said...

Home electronics have a lot of servicable life. My parents' Samsung TV, already an old model when they bought it, has been working fine for over a decade.

TVs built a decade or so ago have a much higher build quality than the crap they pump out these days, but it's not the TV I was referring to, it's the player devices. If you bought a mass-market DVD player today you'll be lucky if it's still working in five years time...

Uh-huh, and I fail to see how people will in the future prefer to use the PC in the living room.

They don't have to; you're missing the point with the "media center PC" concept -- you don't need a PC in the living room, one in the den, etc. They're a "hub" from which content is pumped to set-top boxes and games consoles, so you can keep your regular TV and still use the PC as a PC in the normal fashion.

...they will quickly commoditize the playback equipment and make their money by taking a licensing fee from every disc sold.

Yes, but if I already have a BluRay player conveniently built in to my PS3 then why would I want to buy a standalone device? When the PS2 came along I already had a DVD player; when BluRay players come along I'll already have a PS3. With the former, the PS2 did something the DVD player didn't; with the PS3, BluRay players won't do anything the PS3 doesn't, so it's a redundant device. (I suspect that the first generation of players won't play both competing formats, and given the historical stupidity of media/electronics conglomerates there may well be licensing restrictions that forbid hybrid devices.)

Give it another five years and I still think that a device that "just" plays DVDs will be an antique curiosity, and the notion of a "media hub" that streams video, music, and other content around the house from various sources (cable, broadcast, streamed, etc.) will be much more prevalent.

Flasher T said...

"They're a "hub" from which content is pumped to set-top boxes and games consoles"

So what's the point of a Media Center as opposed to a simple file server? A KVM switch is a lot cheaper than an Xbox. And that *still* doesn't address two fundamental problems - that a console is not as user-friendly, and that you might as well keep the content next to the TV, whether on DVDs or on your TiVo. If you're getting stuff off BitTorrent, it's easier to dump it onto a DVD-R than it is to set up a network.

"Yes, but if I already have a BluRay player conveniently built in to my PS3 then why would I want to buy a standalone device?"

Because it'll cost peanuts and have a nice, useable remote. :)

Mat Hall said...

So what's the point of a Media Center as opposed to a simple file server?

Because a simple file server tends not to be able to retransmit live TV from a tuner card to other devices connected to the network while another device is watching a TV show you recorded earlier and a third device is watching something else that's on now but been time-shifted by 10 minutes, for example.

Because it'll cost peanuts and have a nice, useable remote

But if I've already got a player, any cost is more than the no cost I'd have to expend by using my PS3. (And for nice remotes, look at the Revolution controller. It is a remote! :)

I used to think the "Media Centre" deal was a waste of time, too, but my laptop came with XP MCE anyway so I thought I might as well give it a go, and I'm totally sold on the whole idea now, and we've now got an extender device attatched to every TV. Wave of the future, I tells ya!

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