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PCs And TVs: So Close Yet Still So Far Away

The tech industry takes another run at convergence, but standards, bandwidth, and a killer app are still wanting.

Now that high-definition TVs sit in almost a third of American homes, nearly a fifth of households sport a PC network, and more than two-fifths have broadband connections, what will consumers do with all those bits and that bandwidth?

The PC industry is betting that households will use those tools to move, store, and rebroadcast high-def content. Advanced Micro Devices, Apple, Intel, Microsoft, and others last week introduced or signaled plans for products and online services that make it easier to watch HD and standard broadcasts from any room in the house, as well as view video downloaded on standard TVs.

A convergence of better software, faster networks, and more ubiquitous graphics processors could create new ways to watch TV and movies. But immature standards, a lack of public awareness, and the absence of a killer app could still hold back adoption of video processing technologies.

During his keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Show, Bill Gates described upcoming products meant to dissolve boundaries between the PC, high- def TV, and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 game system. Higher-priced versions of Windows Vista will include the company’s Media Center software for receiving and storing TV programs. Also due later this year is a version of Xbox capable of receiving and recording IP television programs. "Our ambition is to give you connected experiences 24 hours a day," said Microsoft’s chairman.

At Macworld, Apple CEO Steve Jobs launched Apple TV, a $300 computing appliance available next month that will wirelessly transmit movies and TV shows downloaded from the Web to a wide-screen TV. It includes a 40-Gbyte hard drive that can store up to 50 hours of what Apple calls "near DVD quality" video.


Resolution? I want one. Samsung’s wide-screen high-def TV draws CES attendees.

Resolution? I want one. Samsung’s wide-screen high-def TV draws CES attendees.

Photo by Joe Hong/AP
RUSH TO HIGH-DEF
Larger PC hard drives and the incorporation of more graphics processing power into computer chips are making it more feasible to use PCs as hubs for video content. Hitachi introduced the industry’s first terabyte-sized hard drive at CES, and Seagate Technology is due to follow soon. Hewlett-Packard introduced MediaSmart TV, a high-def set that can be networked to a PC for video streaming. And Sony previewed Bravia Internet Video Link, which will use an Ethernet cable to stream online video, mostly from Sony, to a TV without first connecting to a PC.

High-def video DVD drives that are just starting to appear in standalone players could become standard equipment on PCs in a few years, says Intel VP Mooly Eden. That would make it more practical to store IPTV broadcasts on desktops and notebooks.

The question for the computer and consumer electronics industries is where that content will be consumed. Intel wants to make sure it’s on the PC rather than set-top boxes that don’t use its chips. Intel also supplies chips for the Macintosh and new Apple TV. At CES, Intel introduced the Core 2 Quad chip, its first with four processors for consumer desktops. It’s aimed at high-end PCs used for video games and photo and video editing. Intel technology called Viiv for PCs that can play downloaded video on TVs hasn’t proved popular.

Rival chipmaker AMD introduced a digital cable tuner for Windows Vista PCs that can record high-def broadcasts and stream them to Xbox 360 consoles. It’s certified by the cable TV industry and will appear in a Dell "Home Media Suite" due in a few weeks that includes a Vista PC, the high-def cable tuner, and a 27-inch flat-panel monitor. AMD also is working on a line of chips, code-named Fusion and due in 2009, that will include graphics processing capabilities from ATI Technologies, which AMD bought in October.

THE VISTA FACTOR
Perhaps the greatest accelerant of the video processing trend will be Windows Vista. Due for general release Jan. 29, Vista brings two big changes from Windows XP that could persuade hardware makers, broadcasters, and consumers to pass content more readily between computers and televisions. First, Vista includes DirectX 10, a set of multimedia software and APIs for watching video on PCs and playing computer games. DirectX 10 apps can offload more work from a CPU to dedicated graphics chips, speeding performance of video playback and 3-D graphics. The technology will also let Microsoft open its Xbox Live online game network to Vista desktop users.

Second, Microsoft has bundled its Media Center software for receiving and storing TV programs into the Windows Vista Home Premium and Ultimate editions, instead of offering it in a separate operating system just for special living room PCs. The shift lets ordinary desktops double as high-def TVs, and Microsoft this week disclosed a deal with Fox Sports to offer interactive HD programming for Media Center. At the same time, Microsoft has signed deals with AT&T, BT Group, T-Online in Germany, and other cable TV operators to sell an upcoming version of Xbox capable of acting as a digital video recorder for IPTV, says Colene McBeth, a senior director in Microsoft’s consumer strategy division. If all the pieces add up as envisioned, consumers could be playing games, watching TV, and downloading video on end-to-end Windows networks.

Yet several factors could hold back the 2007 version of PC-TV convergence, a tech industry dream for more than a decade. It’s still too hard to connect PCs to consumer electronics, and standards are often incompatible. While 44% of U.S. households have broadband, just 1% are connected at the fiber optic speeds needed to handle lots of high-def bits, says Dell chairman Michael Dell, who called on the telecom industry to increase this percentage. And the PC and consumer electronics industries are fighting a standards war over next-generation DVDs; it’s unclear whether the Blu-ray or HD DVD format will prevail.

Standards for connecting TVs to set-top boxes also are just emerging. The industry has rallied around the High-Definition Multimedia Interface standard for doing this with wires, but the jury’s still out on whether the new 802.11n or Ultra-Wideband specs will become the high-def wireless standard.

More troublesome is the lack of a killer application for PC-to-TV connections--that is, a program that makes consumers want to buy into the thicket of hardware and networking gear they need to make the scenario work. It’s all made video convergence hard to explain. "As we sit here today, the consumer doesn’t really know much about that and hasn’t really cared," says Tim Bajarin, president of tech consulting firm Creative Strategies.

If vendors want to forge a new market for their software, PCs, chips, and network equipment, it’s incumbent on Gates, Jobs, and the rest of the IT industry to change that perception.

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