The Wireless Living Room
By Mark Frauenfelder, Mon Mar 25 00:00:00 GMT 2002

Smart new appliances promise to help you master your own domain. But which technologies will win out?

We've heard the not-so-distant rumblings of a fabulous home media future coming down the pipeline, signaling an imminent deluge of digital entertainment that'll keep us glued to our sofas until the next ice age.

In the wireless living room, all of your entertainment needs will be managed by a home entertainment hub that stores, organizes, and wirelessly transmits music, video, images, and Internet content to a variety of network-aware devices. These new home entertainment networks (HENs) take the set top boxes introduced in recent years to a new level. Not only will they offer more functions, like digital video recording, email and Net access, they'll also be able to wirelessly manage your digital camera, video camera, MP3 player, home stereo, car radio and every other device that can store and play digital content.

The financial stakes are huge, and all the heavy hitters in the personal computer, consumer electronic, mobile phone, and software industries are scrambling to grab as much of the early critical market share as they can. Both Microsoft and Apple would like to convince consumers that the personal computer is the perfect device to use as the central hub in a HEN. But other companies, like Nokia and Moxi, are introducing dedicated consoles that have all the power and memory of a computer, without the buggy-ness and unnecessary complexity of a personal computer.

And you can't rule out the game console makers, especially Sony, whose devices are a kind of Trojan horse that will soon start offering all sorts of entertainment services beyond games.

The HEN ahead

The first question that needs answering is this: Do people even want home entertainment networks? Sure, the average American family spends over 8 hours a day planted in front of the TV (according to Nielsen Media Research), and over 60 million Americans use the Internet for a half hour or more every other day, and usage rates keep climbing. But they haven't shown much of an appetite for a system that ties TV and the Internet together.

So far, efforts at converging the functionality of the TV set with computer-like features have failed. Digital video recording devices like TiVo (which received $200 million from AOL Time Warner) and Replay TV (owned by SONICblue) have been critical hits, but have yet to win over a large segment of the couch potato nation. Despite its low price and nifty features, WebTV never sold more than 1 million boxes, even after Microsoft bought the company in 1997 and failed to turn it into a set top box. And Time Warner is still smarting after burning through $100 million in a failed attempt to roll out interactive TV.

Nevertheless, the idea of a wireless network that manages home entertainment is catching on. According to Forrester Research, personal video recorders will be the fastest-growing personal technology product, selling 53 million units by 2005. (By comparison, it took five years for Americans to by 31 million DVD players, currently the fastest growing consumer product market.)

The nifty new features of HENs are compelling, and it makes sense to combine everything into a single central hub that can store and transmit everything without a jungle of tangled wiring. (Just ask anyone who owns a cable box, a DVD player and a TiVo or Replay TV how much fun they had trying to make all these devices work with each other.)

The beginning

In the months ahead, look for platforms that go much further in integrating your TV set, stereo, VCR, PDA, mobile phone, car radio, and personal computer. Microsoft is pushing its Windows-based eHome platform, which will wirelessly connect everything you use to access entertainment or information. As you might expect, the Windows operating system and the personal computer is the hub at the center of everything in eHome.

The first eHome technology, called Freestyle, is an extension of Windows XP, and includes a simple remote control device that allows users to do things like play CDs and MP3 files, or conduct searches for TV shows. A Microsoft spokesperson says Freestyle will change the way we think about home media by changing the location from where we use it: "Instead of having to access your music, photos, videos and a new TV experience sitting at your desktop, you can relax and enjoy them on a couch across the room."

Apple has gone a long way in reigning in a menagerie of formerly incompatible devices. With its wireless Airport system, iPod MP3 player, and iTunes, iPhoto, and iMovie applications, Apple is going after every aspect of home entertainment, except for television.

Television is one area that Moxi Digital, one of the most hyped companies to appear in the wake of the dotcom wipeout, isn't afraid to tackle. The Moxi Media Center, brainchild of the inventor of the ill-fated WebTV, goes against Microsoft and Apple's concept of the personal computer as the hub of the home entertainment network.

A combination VCR, satellite and cable receiver, CD/DVD player, and music and video jukebox, the Moxi Media Center is a personal computer, albeit one that's been stripped down and streamlined to perform the specialized functions of home media storage and delivery. With a beefy 80-Gig hard drive and a Firewire port for additional storage, the Linux-based Media Center can hold dozens of hours of video, or hundreds of hours of music.

Nokia is also getting in on the HEN action with its Mediaterminal, now available in Sweden and coming later this year to other parts of Europe. Like the Moxi Media Center, the Mediaterminal runs on Linux, has wireless LAN capabilities, and integrates TV, Net access, and personal video recording in a single device, and is designed to communicate with game pads, printers, cameras, and PDAs.

The gadget explosion

As HENs start to proliferate, you'll see a new crop of specialized devices that can tap into HENs and deliver customized content in unique ways. Leading the charge is a company called Simple Devices, based in San Mateo, California, which has developed a software platform designed to wirelessly deliver rich media to a variety of network-aware devices throughout the home and garage. Simple Devices' devices don't care where they get their content - it could come from a personal computer, a dedicated storage gateway, or directly from the Internet.

The first Simple Device product to go on the market, called SimpleFi (developed in conjunction with and marketed by Motorola), streams CD-quality digital audio from personal computers or the Internet to existing home stereo systems. The $400 device allows lets you control your playlists from your computer or with the wireless remote control.

Following the SimpleFi will be the SimpleClock, which lets you customize your own wake up-program with the sounds of your favorite songs streamed directly from your personal computer, along with your appointment calendar, the weather report, stock quotes from your portfolio, and traffic conditions along the route you take to get to work.

You can also send messages, such as birthday greetings, to other SimpleClock owners (provided they've given you permission to access their device.) Another device, the SimplePad, turns your Palm computer into a high-speed Web browser and remote control for other devices on the network. It can also serve as an electronic yellow pages and pager/instant messenger. SimpleAuto is a trunk-mounted media storage unit that can store hundreds of hours of MP3 files, updated wirelessly from the home PC.

Multiple battlefronts

The question of which strategy is better - the set top box or the personal computer - may not matter as much as one might think, says Julia Topping, an analyst at the consulting firm, The Carmel Group. "Each will have its own pros and cons and each will likely survive without cannibalizing each other," she says. "The PC is more of a lean-forward type of experience that enables users to interact with business and edutainment type of applications. The Set-top box is a lean-back type of experience that allows viewers to be more passive while interacting with their programming content."

That doesn't mean HEN makers aren't going to try to dominate the living room with their particular system. But they've got other battles to wage as well, namely, with the entertainment industry, which has recently been pushing for legislation that would cripple the functionality of HENs. They've also lock horns with privacy watchdogs, which are concerned with the way HEN makers could keep track of what consumers watch and listen to.

The fact that content has been freed from fixed media such as CDs and videotape cartridges frightens music companies and movie studios. They have a good reason to be scared - it's incredibly easy for a personal computer user to share digital content with other people over the net. That's why entertainment companies favor dedicated set top boxes instead of PCs.

It's difficult for an end user to unleash a song or movie that's stored on the hard drive of a system that can't run peer-to-peer applications. But the hardware industry is balking at the entertainment industry's demands to enact laws that limit the way users can access content stored on devices. This isn't because the hardware manufacturers are in favor of people sharing songs and movies with other people, but because they don't want to kowtow to the politically influential entertainment industry.

And then there's the privacy issue. Home entertainment networks derive a lot of their power from knowing who you are and what you like to watch and listen to. The question is, who owns this information, and how much of it can the HEN makers sell to advertisers? Watch the area of privacy and HENs really heat up in the coming months.

In the meantime, stock up on the microwave popcorn, and I'll save you a spot on the sofa.

Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles.