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PC makers plan another living room assault

It's long been the PC industry's dream, to take center stage in the vast home entertainment market. Success, however, has been elusive.
Brian Tong uses a special remote control on an Apple Computer iMac G5 using Apple's Front Row at an Apple store in Palo Alto, Calif.Paul Sakuma / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's long been the PC industry's dream, to take center stage in the vast home entertainment market. Success, however, has been elusive.

And so the industry will launch in 2006 its most aggressive effort yet to persuade people to buy computers for wrangling the expanding universe of digital content.

Leading the charge are longtime PC collaborators Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp., both of which are promising better support for high-definition programming and an improved ability to send video, still pictures and music throughout the home and to portable gadgets.

Macintosh maker Apple Computer Inc. is also widely expected to join the fray and, perhaps, do for entertainment computers what it did for digital music players when it unleashed the iPod in 2001.

But it's not going to be an easy to overcome a checkered past, particularly given the problems that emerged in the industry's first forays.

Most companies haven't taken close enough notice of the what's behind Apple's iPod success, says Rob Enderle, an analyst at the Enderle Group research firm.

"Most of the technology products being thrown at the home market aren't particularly attractive or well priced, and ease of use isn't anywhere in their description," he said. "Until that gets fixed, we're going to have some serious problems."

Such PCs — even when decked out with programs that can be controlled from a couch with a clicker — are criticized for being too complicated for consumers.

People are simply tired and frustrated by computers that take too long to boot, crash, get infected by viruses and demand constant updates with security patches.

Why would they want such a thing controlling their entertainment? Old set-top boxes supplied by cable and satellite TV companies may be dumb and slow but at least they're low maintenance.

Intel's answer is Viiv, a hardware and quality assurance platform that's expected to be launched in the first part of the year. As Intel did with its Centrino brand for notebooks and Wi-Fi hot spots, it will make sure Viiv-stickered PCs, gadgets, services and content play well with one another.

Viiv-branded PCs, not surprisingly, will include Intel chips that should enable smaller and more appealing cases, said Eric Kim, Intel's chief marketing officer. "Until now, devices (media servers) were PC-like devices with fans, a tower, and lots of noise, and people don't want that in their living rooms," he said.

It's also going to build on Microsoft's Media Center Edition of Windows, which has sold more than 4 million licenses since its 2002 debut, including to notebooks and laptops without TV tuners that can't rightly be classified as entertainment delivery vehicles. By way of comparison, analysts have predicted that more than 70 million consumer PCs will ship worldwide in 2005 alone.

"It really hasn't taken off because it didn't meet that threshold for ease of use, the hardware wasn't good enough and there wasn't enough compelling content," Kim said. "What we're doing is bringing all these parties together."

Microsoft also isn't planning to stand still in 2006. Late in the year, it will launch its long-delayed, next-generation operating system, Windows Vista, as well as a Vista-based update to the Media Center Edition for Windows.

The upgrade will support a technology called CableCARD that will allow users to access all their digital cable channels without having to use the cable box that the cable company supplies — one of the biggest headaches faced by Media Center owners. (This version of CableCARD will not, however, support video on demand or pay-per-view services.)

Microsoft is expected to stress Vista's capability to handle high-definition programming, which should be more readily available late in the year. And it will coincide with Viiv's marketing, said Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates, a research firm.

"Vista and Viiv are going to be hyped in parallel," he said. "There's at least a billion dollars worth of ads that are going to run as result of this."

Yet with new content, just as with old, the old bugaboo of piracy and how to prevent it on a historically open system could stymie the PC's quest to rule the living room.

To help entice Hollywood to offer up its programming for home-networked PCs — and allay fears of rampant HD piracy, Vista will support digital rights management technology that will allow content owners to determine how their works can be used.

One of the more controversial features of Vista will be its empowering content owners to disallow — or downgrade — high-definition video unless the graphics card and monitor support protecting the signal from unauthorized duplication.

Marcus Matthias, product manager at Microsoft's Windows Digital Media Division, notes that other consumer devices — such as a standalone high-def DVD player — will have to play by the same rules.

But that's not the only "digital rights management" technology. Audio CDs are increasingly shipping with programs to prevent excessive copying on PCs, and even Viiv will remain "agnostic" to the various forms of DRM deployed now and the future, said Merlin Kister, a technical program manager at Intel.

Apple — the leading seller of music players, online music and video — also has its own flavor of DRM that it hasn't shared with anyone.

"In as much as Apple is successful, it's a fly in the ointment for everybody else," Kay said.

At the same time, there's growing speculation that Apple will make a run for the living room.

In October, it launched new iMac G5 computers with a simply designed program called Front Row that can be controlled from a distance with a six-button remote control.

The computer doesn't support live video, and the iMac's all-in-one design doesn't make it an obvious choice for living rooms outside of dorms and studio apartments.

But Apple does have a small, inexpensive computer, the Mac Mini, which would blend well in an entertainment center.

The Cupertino company also is switching to Intel chips in 2006 — a move that could help bring down Mac prices. It's not known whether it will participate in Viiv, and neither company is commenting on the plans, if any.

But if computer companies don't succeed, consumers can always stick with set-top boxes that are increasingly gaining more computer-like features.

Advanced models like the Digeo Inc.'s Moxi Media Center are being tested by TV service providers, while Microsoft itself is developing software for boxes used by phone companies' emerging television offerings.

Cisco Systems Inc., the leading maker of networking equipment, said in November that it's buying cable box maker Scientific-Atlanta Inc.

Among other plans, it wants to leverage its Linksys division's home networking products to transmit TV around the house.

"(Cisco) knows if they want to move into the home, it's not going to be on the PC. It's going to be on a set-top box," Enderle said. "Somebody else sets it up, so that makes it easy to use. It's subsidized, which makes the price incredibly aggressive."