May 9, 2007 10:00 AM PDT

The digital home: Still a handyman's special?

The digital home: Still a handyman's special?
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The digital-home entertainment puzzle is still missing some pieces.

Hardware makers have many gadgets in place, service providers are able to offer compelling packages that include home monitoring, digital cable, video-on-demand and wireless phone service, and high-speed Internet is becoming standard for many.

But the entertainment center of most homes, the television, is for the majority of people disconnected from the computer, where they store their digital content. The question is: when will the PC and the TV easily interact, beyond what a handful of consumer products like the Slingbox and Apple TV allow gadget buffs to accomplish?

"It will be a while," said Josh Martin, an analyst at The Yankee Group. "We're not quite there. Until we can effectively stream video around the house...consumers aren't interested."

The idea of a fully connected home seems to be catching on with consumers: the top growth areas in consumer electronics ownership in the last year are digital-video recorders, home network routers, MP3 players, cable modems and digital cameras, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

The CEA estimates that nearly a quarter of U.S. homes have a digital-video recorder. Each is an important element to the digital universe that gadget makers, PC companies, service providers and networking alliances are striving to create.

"The content is not really there because you can't watch it on your TV. At the same time, the devices aren't there because the content is not there."
--Josh Martin, analyst, The Yankee Group

More importantly, broadband adoption is creeping up: 35 percent of U.S. households have a high-speed Internet connection, according to IDC. And by 2010, adoption is expected to reach 60 percent. High-speed connections, of course, are critical for distribution high-definition video around a home.

But there are various issues standing in the way of that long dreamed-of day when the computer talks to the TV and the TiVo. To start, there's the tricky issue of digital rights management, or DRM. "Unfortunately, with copy protection issues, a lot of manufacturers are somewhat loath to get involved in that arena because they're worried they could get sued," said Steve Koenig, of the CEA.

Another problem is that consumer electronics companies' interest in connecting the entire digital home puzzle themselves. A company like Sony makes high-definition televisions, digital projectors, portable music players, cameras, game units, laptops and set-top boxes. It's more of a comprehensive approach to the living room. Apple takes the same tack, and all content purchased from its iTunes Store is made to be played on Apple iPods and its Apple TV set-top box.

For most computer companies not named Apple, partnerships are standard. HP, for example, has made its foray into the living room with networked TVs and media servers, but HP executives say they know full well that they can't build someone's whole digital living room.

digital living

"Nobody can do it all alone anymore. The (product) cycles are too fast," said Brian Burch, HP's Managed Home director.

But there's a catch-22 in all this standards talk: many consumers like that proverbial out-of-the-box setup, and building consumer electronics along interoperability standards in the same manner as computers doesn't necessarily give people that easy setup.

Where's the video?
Video is the centerpiece of the connected-home experience. Problem is, your average movie buff would say there's a dearth of high-quality video content online. As a result, there aren't many devices available for moving that content from the PC to the TV.

"Consumers have a decent amount of digital content stored now, mostly photos, not as many videos," said Yankee's Martin. "(But) all of this is about the TV. Not enough consumers have enough video to justify streaming."

That's starting to change. Several consumer-oriented companies are beginning to make affordable devices that move digital content from the Web to the TV screen, since most people would prefer to watch TV on the couch, not sitting in front of a computer.

Apple TV brings video and music from the iTunes Store to a TV, Sling Media has a product called the SlingCatcher, which moves Web video to the TV screen, and Netgear's digital entertainer can access content from YouTube on a TV.

Netgear's product is the result of a deal reached individually with YouTube. Not every hardware maker has the ability or the time to manage a series of one-off agreements with content providers, according to Martin.

It's still very early in the game for these kinds of devices. And so far, it's been a classic chicken-and-egg issue, Martin said. "The content is not really there because you can't watch it on your TV," he said. "At the same time, the devices aren't there because the content is not there."

The hardware available from Netgear, Sling and Apple are the exception, not the rule. It's still somewhat difficult to navigate most Web content on the TV. Apple TV makes it easier, said Martin, but the content available is only from Apple's iTunes Store, and you can't move it around to any device you want.

"There has to be another source (for video content on the TV), but Veoh (Networks), CinemaNow, Movielink, haven't really captured the consumer mind," he said.

Despite advances that have been made, the digital home is still in the tech enthusiast's domain. Today's purchasers of media servers and watchers of Web content from the comfort of their couch are the equivalent of those who, 20 years ago, were building PCs in their garages, Koenig said.

Until then, the digital living room is still a few years off. "It's not going to happen overnight," he said. "But we've taken baby steps. Some natural things we have to work out first before we can move forward in a meaningful way."

See more CNET content tagged:
Digital Home, consumer electronics, living room, set-top box, Apple TV


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Not Really...
"More importantly, broadband adoption is creeping up: 35
percent of U.S. households have a high-speed Internet
connection, according to IDC. And by 2010, adoption is
expected to reach 60 percent. High-speed connections, of
course, are critical for distribution high-definition video around
a home."

All typos aside, this statement is just plain dumb. Before our
house had High-speed internet, I still had a 54G router hooked
up to a PC and a laptop with a wi-fi connection that shared files
and streamed music and videos all the time. What might be
more accurate would be to say, "a high-speed ethernet or
wireless network is necessary to stream high-definition video
around a home."
Posted by jelloburn (252 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Agreed. Internal network != Internet connection.
I was just going to say the same thing. High-speed Internet
adoption is slowed by the high cost -- you've got to pay a
significant premium each month for the service. "High speed"
home networks, on the other hand, just require a one-time cost
of networking hardware; in fact, they're practically the only kind
of home networks that exist -- nobody is going to use a modem
to talk to their living room TV!

Where high-speed Internet *does* matter is in Internet
distribution of the video content. If, as in a dial-up
environment, the only reasonable way to get video content is by
ripping DVDs or creating it yourself with a camcorder, most
consumers aren't going to think it's worth it.
Posted by Daniel L Smith (11 comments )
Link Flag
The writer of the article clearly doesn't get it. You don't need interent at all to stream video around the house.
And I suppose if a writer of an article about the problems preventing wide-scale adoption of home media networks can't or won't take the time to understand it, the probability of Joe Average understanding it is near hopeless for now.

I'd also add, that content pulled from the web - legal content - is hardly an incentive to network a home for media. There isn't much there, it isn't that compelling and it isn't going to play a huge role in people's viewing habits. Do you realy want to watch crappy YouTube video on your HDTV? I can barely stand it on my monitor.
What is going to drive it is the ability for consumers to rip their CDs and DVDs, and to share their downloaded purchased media. The convenience of ripping your new DVD before you put it away in the basement and steaming that stored rip whenever/wherever a particular member wants to view it... that's the elusive dream.
Posted by skeptik (590 comments )
Link Flag
Apple TV is a great step forward
Contrary to what Mr. Martin says, you can get content for the Apple TV from more locations than just Apple's iTunes store. From music to podcasts to video there are a number of sites serving consumer's desire for entertainment and information. My company is starting a service to provide HD video 'clips' to Apple TV owners in about a week or so. I say that we're providing clips because of the large file sizes of HD material. We decided to limit the initial offerings to 10 minutes and/or 500MB so viewers wouldn't have to download over night.

Since we started this endeavor we've also heard of other's providing similar services. For example, <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a> offers as their URL suggests videos of recipes. (I worked for three seasons on a cooking show and their videos/recipes are very good.)

The site my company is starting is <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a> - we'll be offering productions by independent producers in the 720p, 24fps format Apple supports presently. Check it out when you get the chance!

Stan Timek
Pollywog Theater, LLC
Posted by Stan Timek (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I don't want HD, too much. I'm paying $77 a month.
Posted by paulsecic (298 comments )
Link Flag
Giant leap. . .
If you want a giant leap beyond Apple TV try a Media Center PC. There's tons of content available for it, anything available on the web; even iTunes content. As well as your digital or analog cable. Been available since 2001 too.
Posted by DrtyDogg (3084 comments )
Link Flag
Just like Cnet not to acknoledge Media Center or Xbox which have all the functionality built-in.

Posted by KingBuzzo666 (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Media Center has been doing this for a while. It can record/stream your cable or satellite TV from a central pc to multiple TVs throughout the house over a home network. There are free plugins that allow you to watch YouTube, plugins that allow you watch to watch any video blog, plugins (like Movielink, Cinemanow, etc.) where you can download movies, and there is a large online community with all sorts of apps and help. You can even download TV shows via the xbox live service. Plus streaming your music, video, and picture collection stored on your pc all from a beautiful interface.

This article mentioned all the things that Media Center can do (and arguably better than anything else out there right now), yet without mentioning it.
Posted by jimbob5 (1 comment )
Link Flag
Talk about the forest, not the trees.
Yes, there are pieces missing. But pieces of what? What is the digital home?

This article bumbles through one tiny facet of it -- the delivery of multimedia content to the Television from an internet-connected computer in another room. That's a pretty narrow definition of "digital home".

What about automation (X10 and what-not)? What about home security? What about telephony? What about automotive computing? What about distributed classrooms? What about health, fitness, and dietary applications? What about digital kitchens and pantries? What about innovative ideas by the author (here's one for you -- a digital wireless "neighborhood watch" program linking multiple home security systems)?

What this article fails to explore is whether there is a compelling value proposition for a "digital home". I say that, despite all the "what about"s above, there is not; not today anyway. Therefore, such applications are indeed still the realm of the handyman.

However, there IS a compelling value proposition for an internet-connected home entertainment center -- a living room PC. Regardless of the available of streaming multimedia content (or lack thereof), individuals are creating more and more content of their own. It is true that TV content search, scheduling, and recording is available from your cable provider or third parties (e.g. Tivo). However, it's also available for free -- currently, for handymen/women.

The article draws one or two useful conclusions, but largely failed to explore the subject promised by its title.
Posted by brendlerjg (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag

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