Before getting our first TiVo a couple of years ago, we were faced with a choice: either the world’s best-known DVR or a media center PC. A home theater PC was attractive because of its versatility, but the thought of having a PC in the living room proved to be a turnoff to my better half, so the TiVo won out. Despite the inroads that HTPCs have made into the living rooms of the world, more traditional DVRs and cable set-top boxes are still far more popular.
That may change over the next few years, according to a study by ABI Research. The research firm is predicting heavy growth ahead for media center PCs and associated hardware, up to US$44.8 billion by 2011 from its current US$3.7 billion level. "With the arrival of faster in-home digital networking technologies such as MoCA, an industry-accepted framework for networked digital media distribution in DLNA, and the increase in both pay-TV and Internet content moving over in-home networks, the home media server is becoming a key beachhead in the digital home," according to principal analyst Michael Wolf.
The research firm calls the amalgamation of media center PCs, PVRs, gaming consoles, network attached storage (NAS) devices, and set-top boxes "digital media servers." As consumers acquire more and more content in a purely digital form (i.e., without physical media), the use of digital media servers to store and move the content around the house or onto portable devices will take on greater importance.
It’s a familiar problem for those of us who have embraced digital content distribution. Here’s an example: say that in a couple of years, you are able to download a high-quality, full-length Hollywood blockbuster from Netflix to your PC. Do you want to sit at the computer desk and watch the movie on your 23" LCD or would you rather stream it into the family room so you can take it in on your 42" plasma display and Surround Sound system? If services like full-movie downloads are truly going to take off, producers and distributors will have to overcome the problem of in-home storage and distribution with a mass-market-friendly solution (assuming they ever get that pesky DRM thing solved).
There’s one cloud on ABI Research’s rosy horizon: CableCARD. Wolf believes that Vista’s support for CableCARD will help move HTPCs further into the mainstream. However, CableCARD’s marriage to the PC may never be fully consummated. First, do-it-yourselfers will be left out of the HTPC/CableCARD fun. For the foreseeable future, only OEMs like HP and Dell will be certified for use with CableCARD—and those systems will be using CableCARD 1.0. That means no support such niceties as video on demand, interactive services, or multistreaming—and it won’t be compatible with version 2.0. In fact, there is no guarantee that Vista will ever support CableCARD 2.0, which could limit the potential for widespread adoption of media center PCs.
The potential for growth in the media center PC, NAS, and other home digital media storage and distribution markets is there, but if the stars don’t align, it may never come to pass. The broadcast flag, while popular with content producers, could have a chilling effect on innovation in the consumer electronics market. If legislators can resist media industry pressure to enact the broadcast flag and the market is allowed grow unencumbered by government regulation, the future for HTPCs and home media networks may be as bright as some believe.