Devices vie to be hub for home media

Connections: Throughout the year, companies will release products they promise will centralize a home's digital products - as the concept of the home media server continues to evolve.

January 17, 2002|By Mike Langberg | Mike Langberg,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

A single electronic box called a "home media server" could, in the very near future, control every form of digital entertainment and information in your home.

This year's Consumer Electronics Show turned into a kind of baby shower for the home media server, with companies lining up to describe their vision of the networked future.

Sony, the most influential company in consumer electronics, and Microsoft, the most influential company in computers, each presented variations on the home media server theme. Even companies who didn't introduce home media servers last week at CES trotted out impressive-sounding slogans to show they understand the importance of linking devices; Panasonic came up with "Digital Networking for Life" to describe its new televisions, camcorders and DVD players.

There's no clear definition yet for what a home media server should be, but a rough outline is emerging.

The home media server will manage television programming - delivered by cable, satellite or the Internet - and music, delivered by the Net or transferred from CDs into the server's hard drive.

The server might also handle more computer-like functions, such as electronic mail, instant messaging and Web browsing, as well as entertainment services such as online video games.

This digital mother lode will move throughout the house, either through wires or wirelessly, to television sets, stereos, personal computers and futuristic devices such as portable touch pads.

The most fully featured home media center on display at CES is Moxi (www.moxi.com), from a Palo Alto, Calif., start-up that operated under the cover name Rearden Steel until recently.

The Moxi Media Center, or MC, is a $400 box - containing a DVD drive and 80-gigabyte hard drive - functioning as a cable or satellite receiver, digital video recorder, music jukebox and computer networking hub.

Video, music and data can be sent to other rooms through coaxial cable, Ethernet wires or wirelessly using a new high-speed format called IEEE 802.11a.

EchoStar Communications, parent of the Dish Network satellite televison service, will start testing Moxi this summer and could start offering it to its 6 million subscribers late this year or early in 2003.

If EchoStar succeeds in acquiring rival DirecTV, Moxi would have another 11 million potential customers.

Cable companies are also looking at Moxi, though none has yet made a public commitment.

It's too soon to say how much consumers would end up paying for Moxi.

The hardware would almost surely be subsidized by satellite or cable operators, or even offered free, in exchange for monthly fees tied to various services.

Sony is taking a more subtle approach, preparing to turn its PlayStation2 video game system into a home entertainment gateway. At a CES news conference, after introducing the slogan "Ubiquitous Value Network," Sony Electronics President Fujio Nishida said an online gaming service for PS2 due later this year would provide access to America Online, as well as music and video through the RealPlayer platform widely used on PCs.

Sony has also promised to deliver an external hard drive that would plug into PS2, raising the possibility PS2 could morph into a digital video recorder and digital music jukebox.

Again, it's too soon to report how much this will cost - though Sony has said consumers will need a high-speed Internet connection, such as a cable modem or DSL phone line.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates offered the Windows PC - no surprise - as a home media server during his CES keynote speech last week.

A new user interface called "Freestyle" would present Windows in large, simple onscreen menus designed for easy reading on a television screen from a sofa across the room. A PC equipped with a television tuner and a hand-held remote could then become a digital entertainment center.

Gates also displayed a wireless touch pad tablet dubbed "Mira" that would serve as a kind of detached computer monitor, making it easy to tap the contents of a Freestyle PC anywhere in the home.

Samsung Electronics showed its support for Microsoft by displaying a prototype Home Media Center, essentially a Freestyle PC in a shiny, silver case that would blend into the typical living room.

Pioneer Electronics, using the slogan "Digital Network Entertainment," introduced a home media server called the Digital Library. Due late this year or early in 2003, the Digital Library contains a music CD drive and a 60-gigabyte hard disk, connecting to as many as three televison sets around the house and a home network.

From the Internet or a home computer, users could load digital music, video and even photos.

Music CDs placed in the Digital Library's CD drive could also be converted to digital files on the hard disk.

As with Sony, Microsoft and Samsung, Pioneer isn't ready to talk about what its home media server will cost.

San Jose-based TiVo, one of the first companies to sell digital video recorders, announced a second-generation product at CES that qualifies as a home media server.

The TiVo Series2, due next month at $399, includes a 60-gigabyte hard drive that can store up to 60 hours of video.

When connected to a high-speed Internet line, the Series2 will play Internet radio and store music downloads. Through a home network, users could also load digital pictures into the Series2 for presenting slide shows on a television set.

The future of home media servers lies in the homes of consumers who decide which - if any - of these electronic impresarios can deliver worthwhile services at reasonable prices.

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