Most of us are familiar with using a PC at home or
at work. They have become essential to our lives; enabling us to browse the web,
sort digital photos, manage finances, play games and much more. Their new role
in support of home entertainment has been increasing.
The PC is the accepted tool for legally copying an
Audio CD or downloading MP3 to an Apple iPOD or other portable music player.
When a significant new use for the PC appears, such as web browsing or legal
music copying, many PC users are motivated to buy a new PC or Notebook. This is
what the PC industry calls a “replacement cycle”. In the past a replacement
cycle could also be triggered by a new Operating System release or large step-up
in system performance; but increasingly, users are looking for more than
Much of the PC industry is actively trying to
define and determine the role of the PC in support of digital convergence. It is
widely believed that a significant role for the PC would drive a new replacement
To make a PC attractive to a “digital enthusiast”
it would have to support their interest in: digital photography, music
libraries, video editing and reformatting, and the shift towards digital TV.
iPODs and the future of the Extended-PC
An increasing number of developers believe the
solution is some form of Extended-PC. That is a PC which extends its use and
value beyond its traditional role. That traditional role is described by the
industry as “2-foot” – the user sits 2-foot from the screen and interacts with a
keyboard and mouse.
For example, the iPOD, or MP3 player, allows the
PC to extend its value. Before an iPOD can be used in, for example a car, it is
typically docked with a PC and charged with music.
This arrangement effectively extends the value of
a PC for the in-car iPOD user. Similarly, there are emerging products which
extend the value of the PC into every room of the house. One example is the
Apple AirportExpress, which enables music to be streamed, over a home network,
from an Extended-PC to a HiFi system connected to the AirportExpress. The
Extended-PC replacement cycle “trigger” is the adoption of wireless home
networking, which enables the PC to support useful tasks in rooms in which it is
not directly present.
At home, most entertainment time is spent watching
TV. The familiar infrared (IR) remote is the input device for the TV. This
traditional TV User Interface (UI) and remote combination is described by the
industry as “10-foot” – the user sits 10-foot from the screen. To prove the
value of an Extended-PC, it must have some widely accepted role in support of TV
The PC-to-TV connection. One approach is to
directly connect the PC to the living room TV. In support of this, the PC must
have a new 10-foot UI. Many software companies now offer this, including the
Microsoft Media Center UI. A 10-foot UI is controlled from an IR remote, as
there is little desire to use a mouse and keyboard when switching TV channels or
accessing entertainment content – movies, music and the like.
Living room PCs are often equipped with TV tuners;
leading to their use as video recorders. The TV tuners are usually of the analog
type, resulting in noticeably less quality than is available with digital TV.
But the approach avoids the monthly service fees usually associated with a video
record service provided by a digital Set-Top Box (STB). As a 10-foot-only
appliance, the PC is not yet a runaway success.
There are several explanations given for this:
PC’s produce more heat and noise than the familiar STB or DVD player, the
Windows operating system requires maintenance and start-up time, the traditional
PC box does not look good next to the TV. Most significantly, another box and
another IR remote are just not wanted.
A PC is appreciated for its 2-foot value. The
technology inside the PC is relatively more complex than a traditional
entertainment appliance – such as a DVD player. This leads to a 2-foot Bill of
Materials (PC BOM) which is higher than a typical 10-foot BOM.
Promoting a solution with a 2-foot BOM where the
consumer expects 10-foot BOM price, creates marketing challenges which are new
to the PC industry. A PC dedicated to a 10-foot location is typically marketed
as a Media Server PC – but there is no widespread consumer understanding or
appreciation for what a Media Server is, and why one should want it.
The role of the Hybrid PC
Another approach is to promote the PC as a hybrid
solution; that is, it supports both 10-foot and 2-foot operation. This can work
in situations such as a small apartment where 2-foot and 10-foot living occur in
the same space; or in a kids’ bedroom, where the PC monitor is also used as a TV
display. The Hybrid PC is bought for its understood 2-foot value; but as an
extra, it can display a 10-foot UI on a nearby TV. When the PC monitor is not
used for TV viewing, a second video-out port is required to send the 10-foot UI
to the living room TV.
The Hybrid PC approach is interesting to many, but
it still does not satisfy the majority of PC or entertainment appliance users.
The conclusion is, extending the PC’s value into the living room is today not
best achieved by placing the PC in the living room. This is where the
entertainment thin-client provides a solution. In less technical terms, this
refers to adding networking support into already understood entertainment
appliances, resulting in cooperative communication with an Extended-PC elsewhere
in the home network.
Microsoft's thin-client approach. The
thin-client approach was somewhat followed by Microsoft with their Extender
appliance and by others with their Digital Media Adapters (DMA). A DMA
typically networked to a PC running the Windows XP Home Operating System (OS).
The Extender only networks with a PC using the Media Center Edition OS. Other
than this and other technical differences, they are much the same – an appliance
which has no standalone capability but enables PC-resident content to be
presented at the TV. The Extender has the advantage of presenting the same
10-foot UI provided by the PC when directly connected to the TV.
The Extender and DMA have not yet shown DVD-like
adoption rates. The explanations given for this are: another box and another IR
remote are just not wanted; thin-client capability should be built into an
existing appliance; network set-up and bandwidth requirements are excessive; the
value of the features enabled by a DMA are not yet understood or appreciated.
Microsoft has responded to the market by building
the Extender capability into the new Xbox360. This gives the Xbox360 a dual-role
beyond its basic duty of being a gaming platform. For enthusiastic Xbox360
gamers, the Extender capabilities are a useful addition. But for those not
interested in gaming, the box looks like an expensive Extender.
PC as distributed entertainment hub
Both the Media Server PC and Hybrid PC approaches
use the PC as a hub for distributing entertainment (or 10-foot) content. Via the
PC’s broadband connection or TV tuners, the PC-hub gathers and stores video
content for presentation on a connected TV or transfer to a thin-client’s TV.
This approach has potentially several disadvantages.
It requires the caballing normally bringing video
reception to the living room STB to be routed to the PC location. Home users and
TV service providers don’t like moving or installing cable. Even with the PC in
the living room, the second popular complaint is not avoided – if the PC fails
for any reason, the familiar TV channels are no longer available. Existing PC
users and TV service providers are very concerned about the PC’s ability to
sustain basic service to the level of the already familiar STB.
STB and TV. Before describing an approach
which extends the PC’s use, without encountering the problems described above,
let’s first take a look at what is happening with the living room STB and TV.
New TVs have a larger screen area; they are also flatter and with superior
resolution. There are also several important STB trends. First, the STB is
connecting with the TV via cable which supports higher signal definition -the
higher TV resolution requires a better connection with the STB. Second, disc
storage is being integrated into new generation STB. This enables digital video
record (DVR) and other services – such as Video on Demand (VOD). Users can time
shift programs or skip adverts with their DVR STB. Thirdly, networking
capability is being added to the STB.
There are some advanced technical features being
added to the STB, such as Digital Rights Management (DRM) and higher compression
video Codec (H.264 for example), but end-users don’t follow or directly respond
to these developments. The addition of networking support enables the STB to be
part of a home network. Like a PC or Notebook, the STB connects with the home
router. Consequently, like the home Notebook, the STB can access any broadband
service connected to the router. All of this is to enable Internet Protocol TV
(IP-TV) to be delivered to the STB’s TV.
IP is the language of computer networks.
Connecting the STB to the network enables video to be delivered by the new IP-TV
path. High quality video requires a lot of network bandwidth; if this is not
available then the quality of any live-streamed video would be reduced. However,
another form of IP-TV is via Video on Demand (VOD). High quality video can be
requested over the network and stored on the STB integrated disc. Later, the
video can be watched, with video-pause naturally supported.
Extended-PC and the Hybrid-STB
Within the industry there is talk of future IP-TV
STB adoption. However, the dedicated IP-TV STB is likely to suffer the same fate
as the DMA. Consequently, it is becoming increasingly clear that IP-TV features
must be built into an existing entertainment appliance – with one obvious choice
being the conventional broadcast reception STB. This is the trend happening in
Europe, where IP-TV and DVB-t (European digital TV) are supported by a Hybrid-STB.
The Hybrid-STB supports two important
trends, the shift from analog TV broadcast to digital TV; and the use of IP-TV
for video catch-up services and VOD. These Video on Demand services are not
needed to offer alternative access to Hollywood movies. Consumers already have
many choices for new Hollywood-type content. The VOD enables access to special
interest content – what the business people call long-tail content. Maybe it’s a
particular Bollywood movie or fly fishing in Idaho; not many people want to
watch each unique choice. But, when all the unique choices are added up, there
is a lot of network traffic supporting IP-TV.
With the Hybrid-STB, the end-user has more choices
when watching TV. The traditional Electronic Program Guide (EPG) lists the
conventional channel choices; some new form of menu system enables selection of
content via the IP-TV path. The catch-up service refers to accessing, via IP-TV,
a program which was previously broadcast but missed. The term “downloading” a TV
show is sometimes used.
Currently, TV users don’t think of downloading a
TV show via their TV remote – they think of changing TV channels or maybe
time-shifting; the word “downloading” is PC-industry speak. The new TV menu
system supports catch-up or VOD (video downloading). DVD disks typically
include a small menu at start-up, so users have some experience of TV menus.
However, these new TV User Interfaces (10-foot UI) present two new challenges.
PC and Mac users are familiar with a high-quality
User Interface (UI). The PC is fast and incorporates advanced 3D graphics
acceleration hardware. Tools for building advanced PC software are widely
available and end-users are now accustomed to a high-quality PC UI.
The much less expensive STB does not have
comparable processing power or software tools available for construction of a
10-foot UI. This is likely to result in a UI at the TV that is slow,
unsophisticated and does not satisfy the end-user. The shift to higher
definition TV only compounds the problem, as more resolution requires the
support of a more powerful computation engine – not typical in the low-cost STB.
There are many suppliers of STB. There is no
standard for advanced menus or software support. This makes it difficult for a
VOD service provider to build a single 10-foot UI which will work on every IP-TV
STB. The lack of software uniformity and STB CPU engine performance, may be an
obstacle to IP-TV growth.
Consider the rapid growth of the web. PC users are
very familiar with accessing different web pages. The basic browser interface is
the same on every PC and on every web site. This consistency allows a user to be
very productive when using the web UI. A similar familiarity, uniformity and
productivity is required at the TV - now we are moving beyond simple TV channel
selection. The 10-foot UI is not like a browser UI, used to access information,
but is part of the entertainment enjoyment.
IP-TV and the post-linear TV era
Beside the above two challenges, there is a third.
The expression “linear TV” is used to describe traditional TV broadcast and
channel viewing. The linear expression refers to: TV show – advert – TV show –
advert – and so on.
With the introduction of time shifting, IP-TV
choice and interactive TV, we are entering a post-linear TV era. Interactive TV
refers to the user changing the course of their viewing by interacting, not with
a channel changer, but with menus and other objects appearing on the TV screen.
This is often called “pushing red”, for the red button on the new IR remote and
the red circle which appears on the TV screen. Supporting these advanced
features places an additional burden on the STB.
TV advertisers are also looking for new ways to
reach the audience. The increased use of time-shifting contributes to this, but
so does competition from better focused advertising on the web. TV advertising
can reestablish its value if it can interact with the TV audience. This requires
an IP return-path from the viewer to the advertiser. The hybrid STB enables
this, but the advertising community also benefits from the same uniformity of
STB interaction which enables a single advertising campaign to reach every TV.
The STB falls short in supporting all the demands
now being placed on it. It does a good job with broadcast TV; it can support
IP-TV content distribution; it does less well with the complex issues lumped
under the heading 10-foot User Interface. As described earlier, the PC-hub is
not essential for the distribution of entertainment content. In fact keeping the
PC out of the critical-path for content flow addresses many of the criticism
leveled at exiting PC industry convergence efforts. When a PC is included in the
home network, the Hybrid-STB can access content from the PC as easily as over a
broadband connection. If the PC is not turned on, then the STB continues to
operate, its just got less places to draw content from.
Hybrid-STB as home PC thin-client
When a Hybrid-STB can also operate as a
thin-client to the home PC, then we enable a very interesting way of extending
the PC’s value; that is, the PC is used as an invisible computational engine for
building an advanced User Interface appearing on the STB’s TV. The power of the
PC and its software tools and infrastructure are required to transition the TV
screen from its historical linear-TV role to its new active-TV requirement. The
new large high-def TVs require more than simple menus to satisfy their users.
Interesting combinations of computer graphics,
video and other content possible with the power of the PC doing the heavy
lifting. The Extended-PC combines these materials into IP-Media-TV channels and
sends it over the home network to the Hybrid-STB. In less technical terms, an
IP-Media-TV channel gives the TV access to the music library stored on the
Extended-PC. This includes showing available album cover-art on the TV, or maybe
offering an enjoyable music jukebox format .To the PC, the task is to run Media
Application software. This application software can change the images, menus or
interactivity occurring on any TV in the home network.
TV and the Extended-Notebook
Removing the PC from being the hub for video
distribution is the ideal approach for home Notebook PC users - no one was ever
going to permanently install video or satellite reception cable into their
Notebook. With the Extended-Notebook approach, they don’t have to.
The Hybrid-STB accesses its own broadcast TV or
IP-TV. When the active-TV UI changes, the STB sends update requests over the
home wireless network to the Notebook. Invisible to the Notebook user, the Media
Application software resident on the notebook is executed and the new UI is send
back over the network to the STB.
If the necessary Media Application software is not
resident in the Notebook, then via the wireless bridge to the home router, the
broadband connection is used to acquire the new software from a server location
on the internet. This is very much like browsing the web, and it happens
The result is the Notebook computer and the
thin-client Hybrid-STB become a unifying entertainment ecosystem. The system is
a natural development from existing standalone platform operation. The system is
robust, low-cost, enables secure access to all forms of content distribution and
significantly satisfies the transition from linear-TV to active-TV.
With growing acceptance of iPODs and
entertainment thin-clients such as the Hybrid-STB, the conventional PC’s
evolution to the Extended-PC is assured.
Projection of a Media Application UI to a
thin-client requires little network bandwidth support, making the approach ideal
for the growing Extended-Notebook market. Notebooks are typically used at home
to give wireless access to the web.
The job of the Extended-Notebook is to run Media
Application software for the TV as well as satisfy the users’ 2-foot
requirements – it is very good at both these task. This approach combines the
best of the PC industry with the best of the STB industry.
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