On future developments in home media centres…

06/02/2005

A couple of days ago I was e-mail interviewed by a guy writing an article on future developments in televisions and home media centres who was interested in the piece I wrote on Social Software for Set-Top Boxes. For what it’s worth – here are my answers in full, slightly edited for clarity:

In your presentation you outlined some interesting ideas (buddy lists, watch with friends etc.) – Is anyone going down this route? Online gaming is leading this kind of hybridised social / entertainment stuff – things like Xbox Live already make it possible for you to talk and chat and play alongside people from all over the world – and to manage those relationships. Simultaneously, each of these boxes is coming closer and closer to the idea of a home entertainment hub, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the edges between the various activities you could do with them started to blur. Also, around the same time that I put up my stuff on Social Software for Set-Top Boxes, the PARC people also started talking about similar stuff. Obviously, a huge amount of the technology that we take for granted today was developed at PARC, so that bodes quite well for the future.

Is TV and PC convergence a dead idea? I think the idea of a screen in the corner of your room that you watch TV on and then completely change modes so that you can do your taxes is pretty much inevitably going to have limited appeal. There are machines that can do this kind of stuff already of course, but they’re really targeted towards people with very limited space – students and the like. I think the future looks much more interesting than that – with some of the functionality that has been associated with PCs starting to appear in entertainment appliances all around the home. The technology behind all the devices is probably going to be pretty much the same and slightly further off I think we can expect that they’ll all be talking to each other behind the scenes. The various devices in your home will be acting together to give you relatively unified access to your data and media and to the network – but each device will provide its own way of mediating that data – it’s own tailored interface.

What about the Apple media hub? Yeah, I don’t know quite what Apple are doing to be honest. With computer technology gradually moving out of the desktop PC and into the rest of the home, you’d think they’d be right at the forefront. That kind of thing – making complex concepts and devices comprehensible – is exactly what they’re great at. Sony and Microsoft are clearly making huge inroads with their gaming machines to the extent that they already have low-powered media hubs attached to millions of televisions worldwide – I really would have thought that Apple would similarly be looking to get into that space by leveraging their advantage in the digital audio space. But while there are rumours that the Mac Mini is destined to be a foundation for that kind of thing, there’s very little actual evidence of it so far.

Is D-TV more likely to see a continuation of selected internet or internet-like functions rather than fully-fledged net access? Fundamentally the interface just isn’t there for web-browsers on the TV to really take off enormously. I don’t doubt that people will continue to develop them, and I don’t doubt that there will be some people who use them, but having to have an extra wireless keyboard or input device and having to control the screen from the other side of a room makes the whole enterprise less than optimal. In the longer term, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t pretty easy to install network-enabled apps on your TV that allowed you to do things like access your Flickr photostream or the iTunes music store, but I would think you’ll probably do that kind of stuff via a different lean-forward interface somewhere else in your home.

How do the next generation of games consoles fit in to the mix? I think they’re fundamental – unlike with set-top boxes, it’s not a fully commoditised market, there’s enormous scope for technological development and each of the major players is throwing enormous amounts of money into the area – often expecting years of loss-leading before profit. Of course they’re looking to the future. Of course they’re competing to own this new critical space under the TV and at the heart of the connected home. That’s not to say that the gaming element is just a Trojan horse – it’s clearly not – but I think it’s also fairly clear that it’s not the end of the road. The set-top box space is a really powerful and important area – for a start it can potentially mediate all your media consumption. Whoever controls that has a lot of power. And the market for operating systems is huge – how many more people in the world have televisions than computers right now? Think how much money you could make by having your media centre installed on every new TV sold. And boxes like the X-box are in the perfect space to position for that final leap…