03 March 2006

The Convergence is Upon Us
But it's Sneaking in the Back Door

Folks have been talking about a 'convergence' between the living room and the home office - between, that is, your A/V set-up (what non-Geeks call their TV and Stereo) and your computer (non-Geeks still call this I computer, I think) – for quite some time now. But there's really been no sign of the 'killer device' that would effect this change (and yes, that's the one use I know of in which effect with an 'e' is used as a verb).

Apple just announced stage two of the Intel revolution, in the form of the Intel Mac Mini. For 600 bucks (or about 400 quid), it's a lot of computer in a small package. But it's the 'other bits' that are most significant: 'Front Row' software and a simple infrared remote control lets you plug your Mini into your TV and have access to all of your music, photos and video with just a couple of clicks (of the remote, not the mouse). More significant is the fact that this new version of Front Row will let you access shared iPhoto and iTunes libraries. Simply put, this means that you have access to all the media on all the computers in the house, all from your couch.

Still, folks are complaining about what the Mini does not do: namely, replace your Tivo. Apple has responded, and I think appropriately, by saying: why would you want to replace your Tivo?. The Mini is not designed to let you watch TV or record it; Apple assumes that you'll continue doing that as you've been doing it, but that you also want to hear your music, watch the episode of Lost that you just downloaded from the iTunes store, and maybe check out all the free trailers (I'd provide links, but can anyone tell me how to link to the iTunes store).

My thesis is that the 'convergence' does not require the 'killer device'. Whether it be Apple's solution, or the growing-in-popularity Media Center PC's, the idea is not to have your computer take over your living room (Media Center PC's do this quite poorly). The idea is just to place another network device in your living room, linking your home network to your A/V.

This is also, by the way, why the Slingbox is doing so well. It doesn't replace anything either; it just hooks your network into your Tivo so that you can watch TV on your computer, and do it anywhere. I will buy one of these the instant they release a workable Mac Client.

Some people like to pose the following non sequitur as if it were a question: 'but do I need a Mac Mini?' Look at it this way instead: do you need a DVD player, a DVD burner, or a CD player? If your Mini is plugged into your TV and on your wireless network, then you don't need any of those devices, and the Mini doesn't just replace them, it moves you into a much better paradigm for accessing your media. Take the cost of those devices and compare it to the cost of a refurbished Mini, and perhaps you see my point. Or, if you don't have a TV (and the ONLY TWO people out there reading this know exactly who you are), then add in the cost of the TV and compare it to what you get in the new Intel iMac with gorgeous 20" display. Mine arrives on Tuesday!!!

Katie makes a spirited and highly cogent defence of Media Center PC's in the comments. Let me clarify: I did NOT mean to diss the Media Center as a device that can usher in the very sort of convergence that I'm talking about in this post with the Mini. I was only saying that the Media Center isn't ready to take over your living room (neither is the Mini - though the Mini isn't trying, and perhaps the Media Center is). Now, Katie argues that their Media Center has worked as well as a Tivo, meaning it might well be ready to take over. However, most folks will still prefer their Tivo for a number of reasons. Mainly, the Tivo is a simpler, more intuitive device; it works with a simple remote, etc. And most folks don't want 'a computer in their living room' (thus, the advantage of tiny devices like the Mini, but there are PC's like this as well). Also, I'd say just about anyone can set up a Tivo, but not a lot of households have gone to Media Center PC's, probably because they are a lot harder to set up and to deal with (think Keyboards and Mice).

Another way of putting it is this: for earlier adopters, and tech-savvy folks like Katie, placing a PC at the heart of your A/V system is going to happen sooner rather than later (they've already done it!). But I'm arguing that 'the convergence' isn't going to come about through a computer taking over the living room, because most folks aren't early adopters or tech-savvy the way Katie's household is.

Now, Katie also properly calls me out on my Anti-Microsoft bias. Again, to be clear, I'm not denying that I'm a M$ bigot, but in this case that's not relevant to the post. The pure Mac Zealot would say: 'Microsoft sucks and they can't build a convergence device, but our savior Steve Jobs will come up with THE answer'. I'm not saying that; I'm denying that. Steve can't build it either. My point is that there is not AN answer. We'll get the computer into everyone's living room by putting it NEXT TO the Tivo, not in place of it.

1 comment:

Kate said...

What about Media Center (besides the fact that I assume you buying something made by Microsoft is out of the question) makes it a poor choice as a convergence device? We have a media center in our living room right now. Granted, we were late in the game in getting one (they've been out since late 2002) and we didn't actually buy it. I work in convergence, so work provided one to aid in my current project. I've been beyond pleasantly surprised at both its current capabilities and its potential. All signs point to Vista striding even farther ahead of Media Center in terms of offering. And in our living room, the Media Center actually has replaced the Tivo, which I never thought anything would (that said, we have the HD Tivo downstairs and that thing isn't going anywhere!). I don't think Media Center is any better than the Tivo, but I don't think it's any worse, either. Media Center is more responsive when you scroll through long lists or search, but I never found Tivo to be slow. It's just a matter of comparison. Media Center is lacking some of the AI in terms of identifying similar programs that it can record for us, which is something that I would certainly like it to do. But the access to VOD content, the fact that the machine is networked to our computers, our XBox, can serve our media libraries from said machines, that we can go to, say, MTV and scroll through an extensive list of artists and create and watch a playlist of VOD music videos quickly and easily -- and then surf a bit using the same machine -- that's convergence. Sure, there will be some needed improvements to it. And yes, with the next one, I'll probably have it work in concert with something like the Tivo rather than taking over for it. That option exists either way.