How Vista Will Finally Make the Living Room PC a Reality

The myth of the living-room PC. By Paul Boutin Paul Boutin, writing for Slate, is out with an article talking about the future of the living room PC. In part his article is sparked by the lack of success of Apple’s Front Row initiative (Boutin notes that reference to the number of units shipped was “conspicuosly” absent from Job’s keynote talk in San Francisco yesterday).

But he also takes issue with the much hyped Viiv technology seemingly omnipresent at CES early this January.

“What happened here? Tech pundits say Intel botched their TV debut by pushing technology that wasn’t ready. Still, if the living-room PC is such a great idea, why hasn’t the Viiv void been filled with better alternatives?”

He gets a dig in at Media Center itself as well stating, “Has anyone bored you to death talking about their Media Center PC lately?”

So is Boutin right? Is the living room PC, the connected home of the future, a central entertainment environment dwarfing anything we’ve seen yet today, all one big pie in the sky?

I would of course would say no. And I think Boutin gets it wrong in a big way. As you might suspect, PVR Wire thinks he’s wrong too — and thanks by the way guys for the post.

So why have living room PC based entertainment systems not taken off yet? There are three simple reasons for this. 1. People think computers are too complex. 2. People don’t want a big, bulky PC in their living room. and 3. The software for the living room PC is not quite ready.

So people don’t want a PC in their living room. Although some decent efforts have been made in the form factor design world this remains an issue. So what *do* people want in their living rooms right now?

Three things.

HDTVs, especially plasmas, PVRs and XBox 360s.

What Boutin gets wrong is that in his nearsightedness at looking at today’s world he fails to see the bigger picture as to where things are headed. He gets confused and thinks that the future of PC living room based entertainment is somehow all about Viiv when Viiv, although sexy, is somewhat insignificant. What does matter? Vista and the XBox 360. Boutin fails to see the infrastructure that Microsoft has been laying in place by selling tons of XBox 360s — in anticipation of the great release of Vista.

The problem is just that Vista isn’t here yet.

So how will Vista change everything? To start with the first step to getting Media Center into your living room involves you buying a new PC. “What?” you say. “Who wants to spend $1,000 buying a new PC just for the living room?” Exactly. The point is though that the new PC won’t be for your living room it will be for your den. It will be the natural upgrade that we are all holding off on for our home office/den PC. Nobody is upgrading PCs right now. Why? Because we all know that Vista is just around the corner and why not wait until that’s out to avoid the hassle of having to buy a new PC and then have to also upgrade your OS a few short months later.

We all want more power. Our hard drives are all stuffed full to capacity with pdf files and jpgs and mp3s — with external USB hard drives plugged into extra USB hubs. Our processors are too slow. We don’t have enough RAM to get all that we know we can from Photoshop and it’s bugging us. But we still don’t upgrade. We don’t upgrade because Vista is just around the corner.

So what will happen when Vista ships is two things. First, the power on our PCs will be dramatically improved. Most PCs upgraded will probably be in the $1,000 to $2,000 range with some bargain users below $1,000 and some power users above $3,000. But all of these PCs will be vastly more powerful than what we have in our home office/den today. And more importantly all of them will come with Media Center software shipped by default.

And here’s where the marketing push comes in.

Since you will now already have a super powerful new Vista PC with Media Center built in and since you already have an XBox 360 — you *do* already have an XBox 360 right? The marketing message will be something to the effect of “would you like to add an HDTV PVR to your current XBox360?” By checking this option you will essentially be adding an HDTV CableCARD tuner to your new PC purchase which will then wirelessly or wired (if your home is wired for a network and a lot of them are) transmit your HDTV to your XBox in your living room. Oh, and to your bedroom and to your guest bedroom and anyplace else that you have an XBox 360.

Recently Ray Ozzie spent a lot of time talking about how Microsoft wants to transform itself into a internet juggernaut. The reason is simple. Google has shown that there is huge money here. And the money is not in hardware or software, it’s in advertising. And this is why Microsoft also *must* dominate the living room. It’s not about hardware or software it’s about advertising. It’s about controlling the advertising on the central device in our living room.

For this reason I think in order to ensure that this happens that Microsoft *must* push this strategy when Vista is launched. Part of this should involve further discounting the XBox when purchased in conjunction with a PC upgrade and discounting HDTV PC based tuners for upgraded PCs as well.

If people don’t own an XBox 360 today they want one. They’re sexy. Give them an impulse way to buy one on the cheap. I can imagine the digg headline now in the deals section now — “XBox 360s $99 when you buy a PC with a TV tuner.”

Make the XBox 360 an impulse buy for everyone that doesn’t already have one. And make the XBox 360 your gateway into the livingroom.

This is the the future of the living room and this is what Paul Boutin misses entirely.

Apple of course will likely recognize this far too late given Job’s continued prejudice against a computer based PVR solution.

Update: Kevin Briody disagrees with me. “I have zero need or desire to stream my music collection to my TV. Display my photo collection on the living room TV? Um, why exactly?”

Kevin, recently my best friend came up from Southern California for a visit. I asked him what kind of music he wanted to hear and he said Ella Fitzgerald. So I set up an Ella Fitgerald station on Pandora to play in the background while I had my Media Center PC run through a filtered photo of every photo that had his last name in the title. These were photos from back when we were in high school together, photos I took last year when we visited him down in Huntington Beach of his kids, etc. And these looked fantastic on a 43″ plasma. The slide show ran in the background while we sat in the living room and caught up. He was mesmorized by the slide show. People love to see photos of themselves. When you filter the photos by your guests they really enjoy this.

My parents also live down in Southern California. One of the favorite games for my young children to play is to tell my wife and I who is in a picture. As our family photos rotate on the plasma (and I relax with a nice glass of wine) our kids shout out the names of who comes on the stream. My daughter Katie who is 22 months still thinks every photo of her is her sister but they usually get grandma and grandpa right.

My media center has become a giant wall hanging photo album with advanced filtering tools. You are right about things like email, IM, etc. These are not what people want to do in their living room. But I think you are wrong about photos and music and I think being able to record multiple tuner HDTV with limitless storage (just keep adding hard drives) will be of value to
people vs. the cheapo cable HDTV PVRs where you are lucky to get 10 hours of HDTV record time.

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12 Comments

  1. Tyler Willis says:

    I fully agree with you re: the possibility of a genius marketing/packaging move here by microsoft. 3 years from now this could well be Microsoft’s “iPod.”

    I’m an apple guy, and as such will be having to look for more creative solutions.

    I like the slideshow idea, i may have to rearrange my photos to make that easily possible.

  2. Jeremiah says:

    I have a PC in my living room already – it’s called a “TIVO”.

    I’m being a bit facetious ;)

    TH, what I get from your post here seems to indicate you’re talking more about convergence…in the sense that people want HDTV’s, 360’s, etc, but they also are willing to adopt convergence devices (streaming photos via Flickr! while hearing a customized playlist.)

    Am I interpreting you correctly?

  3. HDTV – Check
    XBox – Check
    Zooomr – Check
    Panodora – Check
    New PC – Buzzzzzz

    I was looking at new PC’s this weekend, and you just told me why I will wait until next spring.

  4. vern says:

    While I agree that there are probably more people who DON’T want the PC in the living room, I am one of the ones who DOES.

    I don’t now nor have I ever owned a gaming console.
    Unless you count that Atari 28 years ago.

    I have a PC in my living room now that, unless you think about it, doesn’t stand out at all. If I had a cabinet to hide it and the cable boxes in, it would be a no-brainer.

    One of the biggest reasons I would never want the type of configuration you are referring to is this; stability. If the tv is fed from a personal computer used as a workstation, it’s entirely possible, and quite likely, that it will have problems often associated with PCs, such as virii or spyware, cirrupted registry, etc. If the box just sits and records tv and plays movies, the chances of those problems are reduced to next to nothing.

    Another reason; drive space. I want my media center to have as much drive space as the motherboard will accomodate. As of right now, mine will accomodate 5250 GB. (7*750GB drives plus DVD drive). It doesn’t HAVE that much, but I would LIKE it to.

    And you know what, it’s not even that powerful. It’s only an AMD Athlon XP 1600 (1.40GHz) w/ 640MB RAM. Runs like a champ recording tv. It also has ripped dvds on it using My Movies. Last time I looked, I had nearly 500 movies in it.

    Plus I have nearly 10,000 songs and well over 6,000 pictures.

    But, as I said, I am more the exception than the rule, but I am being overlooked. The biggest reason I am looking forward to Vista is Softsled.

    Vista is able to read the feeds provided by Windows Media Connect. Therefore, my low-power bedroom media center, if running Vista, can access all the stuff on my main Media Center in the living room. That would be nice.

    I think Microsoft has moved mostly in the right direction, but I think they are ignoring the portion of users who are not afraid to have the PC right THERE, right under the television.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Is there a wireless keyboard with good range and good battery life? I don’t want to sit close to the TV.

  6. mattbg says:

    I have a few comments on your post:

    re: “So why have living room PC based entertainment systems not taken off yet? There are three simple reasons for this. 1. People think computers are too complex. 2. People don’t want a big, bulky PC in their living room. and 3. The software for the living room PC is not quite ready. ” ——– I think #1 should say “Computers are too complex”. When most people can’t figure out where to plug the cables on a regular DVR, anything beyond that is too complex.

    re: “Who wants to spend $1,000 buying a new PC just for the living room?” ——– But, also, who wants to spend this much for something that won’t deal with HD or with external set-top boxes very well? It’s a bad value proposition for someone interested in high quality audio/video.

    And something else… my modest Media Center PC uses over 100W of electricity when idle, and uses this amount 24 x 7. This means that my Media Center uses more electricity every month than does my household fridge — more than 50% more! Put more simply, I spend $10/month to power my Media Center, while a set-top DVR uses drastically less.

  7. Thomas Hawk says:

    Ok.

    Jeremiah. Yes, you’ve got it right. People want convergence. They just want it easily and attractively.

    Russell, definitely wait. No sense in not with Vista so close.

    Vern, Microsoft’s already got you. Just like they already got me. But we are a small segment of the market. We are early adopter tech geeks and we actually want our TV *more* complicated. We love tinkering. Mainstream users don’t. So they don’t really need to market to us with living room PCs so much. We’re a given. They need to figure out how to get the rest of the world.

    Anonymous. I’m sure that there are good wireless keyboard/mouse combos. Personally I’ve gone wired right now because with four kids at home I’d never find my wireless mouse if I had it in the living room. I can barely keep the remote around as it is now.

    Matt, yes, computers *are* too complex. But people have been willing to embrace them anyways for the home office/den. They don’t want to for their TV, but they will make the tradeoff for a PC that does their more traditional PC functions in their den. The key is to convince people that it’s then one simple step further to loop an XBox 360 into the equation and begin getting HDTV in their living room.

    Microsoft of course needs to make this set up very very easy and simple, plug and play, and of course they do need to keep working at making the PC less complex overall in general.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I don’t think the future of the living room is a tv in your living room connected to a set-top computer in your living room connected to a computer in your office. Too cumbersome and inconvenient for most people, even if it is plug and play. The future of the living room is a tv in your living room connected to a set-top computer in your living room. I suspect Apple gets this and will be on top of the TV set soon.

  9. brad77 says:

    I think that you need to add CableCARD to your list, Thomas.

    PVR functionality is one of the main sellling points for an MCE machine, and it simply can’t compete in that arena yet. We’ve been waiting eons for the ability to descramble digital cable and premium content (like HBO and Pay Per View). It’s hard to sell someone on the idea of a home theater PC that can’t compete with the shitty PVR they’re renting from their cable company when it comes to recording TV. I spent $1,000 dollars on this thing. I’d like to turn past channel 99, please.

    Of course, I’m already hooked. I’ve been using an MCE PC for about a year and a half and I love it. I really get a kick out of watching my houseguest’s jaws hit the floor when I show them what it can do. I really enjoy watching recorded TV on my Xbox extender in my bedroom. That said, it’s extremely unfortunate that MCE has been hobbled by this for so long. It’s a fantastic piece of software that does a lot of great things, but personal video recording is the cornerstone that MCE is built on. Without CableCARD, it just limps out of the gate.

    The promise of CableCARD 1.0 with Vista is a step in the right direction, but even that has its own issues. It locks the do-it-yourself market out, requiring home HTPC builders to buy a brand new system which will still lack many of the PVR features found in cable boxes today. (CableCARD 1.0 lacks the two-way comunication supported by the newer 2.0 standard, which is currently unsupported by Vista.) Ars Technica has a good write up on this here:

    The living room PC: it’s not a myth, it’s a mess

    I’m looking forward to the Vista Media Center, but I don’t think that it will be everything it’s cracked up to be without some serious CableCARD 2.0 support. Given their (MS and CableCARD’s) track record, that’s doubtful.

    Of course, IPTV could change all that. Perhaps this is why MS is so interested in the technology.

  10. veridicus says:

    Microsoft will never win the push into the living room with the media PC. They will never make a simple, elegant solution. Only techies will go through the cumbersome task of setting up the perfect system.

    One reason is their lack of control over hardware. They have influence over the market, but can’t make a seamlessly integrated media PC.

    The other reason is the poor quality of their software. And I don’t just mean bugs and lack of security. They’re making flashy designs instead of intuitive ones. They make software that says, “Hey! Look what I can do!” instead of, “Let me work with you to get the job done.”

    The only reason Apple hasn’t already created the living room multimedia PC market is because they haven’t tried. They made the basis of the software and soon it’ll come with every new Apple. Once Apple includes a few more features and they see a little interest they’ll push the idea steadily into the minds of the average consumer. They’re preparing while they know the time isn’t quite right.

  11. Tor Erik says:

    “People love to see photos of themselves”, Thomas says.

    Well, I have to disagree. I hate seeing myself at photos, anywhere.

    Otherwise, I agree. Showing photos on the TV is a killer application for Media Center.

  12. Anonymous says:

    The Media Center (or in UK Centre!) is nothing more than a reskin + cablecard support. No support for MHEG services in UK, Europe and Australia meaning interactive services and digital text support is STILL not going to be available under vista despite the broadcasters giving MS all the info they need! I usually defend Microsoft, but unless they pull a rabiit out of the hat, Vista MC is not worth upgrading to in the territories mentioned unless you were getting a higher spec machine anyway. Now we have Messenger and CallerID support removed. The whole thing is in turmoil and quite frankly Microsoft deserve to have failed with MCE in Europe et all because they have missed the boat YET AGAIN by REALISING that Europe does things different to the US and were first ! Vista MC won’t be the mainstream replacement – why would it be ? All the broadcast services are supported by the broadcasters own set top boxes and pvr’s. They also work reliably, in that they dont crash or have random black screens etc on standby resume. If they have any sense, they will delay Vista OR commit and promise that a major MC update giving functionality is released within 6 months or by SP1.