Home Media Thoughts


One of the big reasons I moved back to Windows was so I could play with the home media options that come with the platform. Everything from the installed Media Center stuff to TiVo to go to Orb.com's streaming services. I started playing with all this stuff and looking at the options, but I figured I'd wait until after CES and MacWorld to do a writeup, in case there was some cool neato product that was released that fit perfectly into the home environment, but sadly, we didn't see it happen. So I decided to try to whip up an illustration (I haven't made one in a while) of the options there are for consuming media in my home. There's lots of options, lots of connections and none seem to fit everything I want to do.

What I'm trying to convey is a simple thought: Home Media is still complete chaos. In the illustration, I tried to include all the gadgets (or the categories) that companies are currently hawking, and some of the paths that commercial Media takes to get to these devices. I was actually going to draw arrows between everything that connected, but then it was TRUE chaos, so instead I just concentrated on the simplest picture, and the most common distribution paths. So let's climb up to the top of our living spaces and look down at the pandemonium below.

Start at the center which I've labled Media. That's the content, the stuff that informs and entertains us: music, television, movies, audio, etc. Well, I'm mostly thinking about Video right now, but it applies to audio as well. Media comes into our homes through a few basic paths: Packed media like CDs and DVDs, on a real-time connection (mostly cable, but it could be over the air), and via the Internet. Then once the media arrives - it winds its way through various devices until it finds its way to our eyes or ears. This is where the insane levels of complexity comes in.

Look at the options in what I've labled the Living Room. If you live in a studio apartment, that "room" is also your bedroom, if you're a bazillionaire, you might have a dedicated theater. Whatever. It's where you plop down at night to watch your sitcoms, okay? At the beginning, it used to be that you turned on the TV, adjusted the bunny ear atennas and watched whatever was on at that time. If you wanted something different, well, you had a choice of one or two other channels. Then came along cable, and the VCR, and the DVD player, the game console, and the DVR. Suddenly there was lots we could do in front of the television. But even with all those choices and boxes stacked up under your TV, it was still relatively simple to get your media. (Aside: why do they call this stuff set-"top"... or desk-"top" I haven't had a computer on my desk or a box on my TV in years).

Well, I say simple - most people still have a VCR that blinks at them - but the concepts were straight forward: Packaged or Broadcast media. The complexity comes in when we add in IP based networking. Right now the most common and easy way to get media via the Internet is with a computer. But if media comes down over the network, and is sitting on your computer (which I've called your Desktop, which could be in another room or not), how do you get it to your Living Room where the soft furniture is? Well, if you use WiFi, some companies like TiVo are starting to get media (like Podcasts) over the network straight to the Living Room, no PC needed. So that's good. And if Microsoft had its way, we'd all buy additional computers, plug them into the cable AND the network, and live life that way. (Not likely, but interesting). The other option is a Media Extender - which is interesting, but they're so damn expensive right now, can't really stream HD over WiFi, and don't support all the media you'd want to extend - you can't you play iTunes purchased video over a Microsoft Media Extender, for example.

Portable media has lots of options as well. There are solutions out there to buy and watch videos, music, and see streaming television remotely on a variety of devices. Some devices need to Sync over USB or Firewire like an iPod or a Microsoft based Portable Media Center, some can use WiFi like the PSP or the Nokia 770, and others have their own access to the network like mobile phones. Lots of options.

So here's the problem (which I've alluded to): none of this stuff really works together, and most of it is too complex for your average consumer to try to get working. Let's look at some of the scenarios.

First is iTunes. I use my computer to buy a new song or rip it from CD. I can then send it to my living room using the Airport Express, or I can sync it to my iPod via a cable. Great. Can I record a song from radio automatically? Nope. Can I view an iTunes video on my TV? Not without syncing it to the iPod, carrying it to the television and plugging in the extra RCA cables. Can I get new music on my iPod without using a computer? Nope, you need to run the iTunes software to manage your music.

Next is TiVo. I can record programs from my TV to watch later. I can use TiVo To Go to transfer those videos to watch on my PC. I will be able in the near future to transfer those videos to my iPod or my PSP. Great. Can I watch streaming media on my TiVo? No. Can I buy new movies on my TiVo? No. Can I watch movies - either home movies or purchased - that are on my PC on my TiVo? No. Can I stream Tivo recordings over the Internet to my phone or laptop? No. Tivo is basically a one way street right now, except for audio podcasts and Rocketboom, with no commercial video at all, and no streaming.

Next is the Media Center PC. I have one under my desk right now. Can I manage video? Yeah. Can I buy movies, yeah. Can I watch it from my Living Room, yeah - with my XBox 360 as a Media Extender (a very, very, very LOUD Media Extender). But can I view my iTunes video from living room? No. Can I record programs like my TiVo: NO. Now wait a second, isn't that what Media Centers are supposed to do? Sure - but I don't have a cable card, and even if I did, I have Comcast digital cable, so it wouldn't work, and even if I had analog cable, the wire comes in on the opposite side of the house from where my computer is. So No, my Media Center PC doesn't record live video. My TiVo doesn't need a cable card - it just passes the video through it using coax or RCA cables - why does the Media Center need a dedicated cable port? I have no idea, but it does. I saw a bunch of CES announcements about "Cable Card" compatible Media Centers, but is Comcast and other cable companies on board with that? What sort of DRM is involved? I don't know, but it doesn't look good.

Also, the PC under my desk is the first desktop I've owned in a while (if you don't count the Mac mini). Most of the past 8 years I've used laptops as well - so assuming there's going to be a PC in the home that's dedicated to recording television is a bit of a stretch to me. I purposefully bought this machine as a sort of "home media server" but I'm not sure how many people will do that in the future, especially with laptops being so cheap nowadays.

Here's a couple oddball options for your living room: Slingbox and Sony's Location Free TV. I'm not sure how many boxes these CE companies think we're going to want to have next to our TVs, but these two devices ($250 and $350 respectively) will take whatever video you're watching and stream them remotely via the Internet. The Slingbox works with an Windows Media player, and the Sony will work with a very expensive custom tablet or the PSP. Both of these work well, and don't need a PC in the middle, which is nice. But they don't work in reverse. You've got this dedicated box sitting next to your television connected to the Network, but I can't SEND video to it? Why? And why can't I have a DVR-type program running on my PC which takes the streamed video being sent by these boxes over the wire and record it?

That brings me downloaded video on your PC. It doesn't matter where it came from - iTunes video or Google video or BitTorrent - you don't want to watch these movies on your PC monitor. You want it in your living room. But not only that, you want to be able to CONTROL the video as well from your couch. That's why I drew the little person up there with a remote control in his hand. This is the problem with the Airport Express for music. I start playing the music in one room, and I'm listening to it in another, then the next random song is some hard rock thing you don't want or a 45 minute Podcast, and I have to get up and go into the other room in order to change the song. Whatever you use to get the video out to your living room, you better have a remote there to send back the control. There's a cool gadget called the Haupage MVP which does a bit of this - it will play streaming MPEG video on your TV over an Ethernet connection and has a remote. But again, it's only one way. I can't actually replace my TiVo with this because I can't use it to record.

Finally, there's the game consoles. I have this great new PC under my desk which has dual core processors, great graphics card, networking, harddrive, etc. Right? And yet, I bought ANOTHER device with the same sort of power which is now sitting out in my living room doing nothing for 99% of the week. Why can't I use my desktop to play a game like Katamari Damacy, but out in the Living Room using normal controllers with other people and not alone on my PC using a mouse and keyboard? And despite this massive amount of power - which dwarves whatever 5 year old CPU is in my TiVo next to it - it still can't record video and send it to my PC or my mobile devices.

What's the answer to all this chaos? I don't know, honestly. Maybe the move to pure IPTV over the Internet will obviate the need to record live video - I know I'm starting to use Comcast Video On Demand a lot more than I use my TiVo. But that's years down the road - I still like the ability to be watching live events like a football game and pause/record them on to a hard drive immediately. And the cost of video content via Cable is way cheaper than On Demand. Think about it - you get 50 channels times 24 hours a day times 30 days a month = ~36,000 hours of content each month. Even if you take out the repeated movies and the infomercials, it's still thousands of hours of content for around $50. Consumers will balk at systems that charge significantly more than that and don't provide equivalent value. To me it seems you need two way recording/broadcasting from every gadget - and the devices all need to Just Work (TM) much better. I want to be able to record a video from my phone and have it appear on my Parent's TV set without effort, I want to be able to view recorded television on my PSP, live television on my computer, play PC video games on my TV, and every other combination you can think of.

That's really what we didn't see at this year's CES. We saw more boxes, and more services and more DRM (.gvi? Are you fucking kidding me?), but nothing to ease the actual problems associated with home media for consumers. Maybe we'll solve some of this stuff with Yahoo! GO TV? I'm not sure - I've only seen a demo, and I'm not part of that group, so I don't know - but Yahoo! doesn't make hardware and doesn't want to (that's what Terry Semel said in his keynote) so this stuff will have to be solved by some hardware manufacturer it seems. Regardless, we need PC software that can operate a TV, TVs that can receive raw video from any source, WiFi-based remote controls and game controllers and standard codecs and DRM through out.

What say you, Senate?


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