Storage issues may hinder new Media Center

HP and Microsoft have promised us yet another digital entertainment strategy that is going to create a whole new, breathtaking consumer experience. Can you wait?

But even before they could tell us how good it is going to be, Sony must have driven through your neighborhood and noticed that

you and your neighbors are packrats and never throw anything away. Or they looked around Osaka and the other cities and towns of Japan and noticed there just isn’t enough storage space in their small homes.

CEATEC Japan held a lot of excitement and even the 9th typhoon of the season couldn’t dampen the excitement. However, the high wind and rain did cause the doors to close early.

CEATEC Japan Unveilings

So at CEATEC Japan Sony took the weather in stride to introduce the VAIO Type X.

They know what drives the Asian consumer and what will ultimately drive the consumer in the Americas. Think of it. A system that can record six channels — simultaneously. This is the AV recording server that will have home theater owners drooling. It has an unbelievable 1 TB hard disk. Translate that? It’s two years of nonstop music, one month of DVD movie play, or for the techie, 1,000,000,000,000 bytes.

It also includes a TV time machine function that lets you watch programs while they are being recorded (technically we call it time shifting, but time machine is so cool!). Use your remote control to go back in time, rearrange programs by genre and enter key words to find specific programs.

It’s being snapped up in Japan and the company will probably roll it out over here mid next year (2005). It won’t be cheap, but with that much power couch potatoes can easily justify the investment just to get every football and baseball game that is being played anytime, anywhere.

People in the industry think of CeBIT in Germany each spring and CES right after the first of the year in Las Vegas. However, CEATEC Japan is where the Japanese (as well as Korean and Taiwanese) engineers go to show off what they have done to all of their peers.

Screens Dominate

LCD and plasma TVs and displays seemed to dominate the excitement but then it is a lot easier to show and see great video than great chips. Sharp took the opportunity to show its huge 65-inch LCD TV and got a lot of attention. Everyone came to see the largest screen and the colour brilliance.

There were screens and types for every taste and nearly every pocketbook.

But the real action started with the new family of 0402 chips (0.4mm x 0.2mm, which are something smaller than a grain of sand and will pave the way for new, bold and fun products. Then you add new networking technologies and out-of-body mobile device experiences. There were tons of leading-edge business technologies unveiled, but those that catch the eye and heart of people are the consumer and AV technologies.

One of the reasons the Pacific Basin countries have taken PCs and technology into every part of their homes and lives is that with the exception of big-iron mainframes, they don’t distinguish between consumer and IT products. Instead these are products for individuals.

The network that is good enough, robust enough and easy enough to use in the harsh environment of the home should be able to withstand the rigors of the office. If your entertainment devices can exchange content (data) without a hiccup with wires or wirelessly then you and your boss should be able to communicate, whether you’re in the office or on the road. If you can transfer precious family images and memories between your camera/camcorder to DVD and your TV then you should be able to send production schedules and inventory control information to the factory floor, warehouse and accounting.

Naive isn’t it? If the kids can’t break it they think mature, responsible and reasonably intelligent adults should be in a position to be profitably productive with the tools.

Design, Delivery Flexibility

Since Japan finds it as difficult as the US to compete on the basis of price once products become mainstream, it has perfected the ability to plan and develop products with abbreviated ramp-up production cycles and then shift volume production offshore (China, Thailand, Vietnam).

The new products are typical of what we’ll see on a global basis for successful firms that produce small-lot production for made-to-order and targeted markets of enthusiasts. As the products become popular they rapidly ramp up manufacturing to capture marketshare. As demand gains momentum manufacturing is shifted to low-cost centers. If demand slows they turn the production spigot off and move to the next generation of product with little or no remorse.

This year the show was dominated by the complete array of products designed for mobility — in the home, on the road, in the office. They made it a point to show and emphasize products you could use without wading through a user’s manual. The screens, displays and TV sets are easy to view and when web site designers figure out that they are designing for readership/viewership rather than their own egos the stuff we see on our screens will be easy to understand without squinting.

Every company today struggles with challenges and roadblocks that are thrown up “”for the good of the consumer.”” There are issues on whose standard is better (who gets the most royalties) and what standards groups will dictate direction. At the same time, content protection alliances work to maintain control over what you buy and use. Despite this, the manufacturers — around the globe — are working very hard to develop what can be called “”work-arounds”” so the products can be quickly, easily and economically integrated. People now understand and demand that products — AV, IT, home, Mobile and office — must be seamlessly and reliably connected.

Range of Options, Always Connected

Nearly all of the firms exhibiting at CEATEC showed end-to-end solutions. But the big difference between these solutions and the Microsoft (and friends) approach is that you didn’t have to go with a single source. The Type X server connected and worked with the giant Sharp screen that worked with the LG or Samsung DVD Recorder that worked with the Panasonic cameras and camcorders that worked with the… You get the idea.

Just as with some of the newest solutions being shown here today they were based on the UPnP and UPnP AV standards that ensured fast, easy connectivity and interchangeability.

Several of the wireless home entertainment solutions even showed how people could bring their older analog content forward by including ADS Tech’s DVD Xpress and InstantMusic products. DVD Xpress is a set-it-and-forget-it VHS to DVD solution. The new InstantMusic is an iPod colored box that lets you copy (and clean up) your old vinyl music and store it on CD or your MP3 player to enjoy.

Connectivity and interchangeability is going to be a fundamental design criterion for everyone in the years ahead.

Digital Paves the Way

All of the companies, solutions and products displayed at this year’s CEATEC Japan focused on digital technology that had its humble beginning in 1982 with the introduction of the CD. Over the past 20 years digital has permeated every facet of our business, home and personal life.

Visually and audibly it is clearer than analog. More data can be sent so the quality can be further improved. Dimension can be added. Digital technology — very evident at CEATEC Japan — has clearly taken over business activities and home/personal entertainment.

While HDTV is slowly and painfully gaining a foothold here in the Americas, you can’t sell anything but in the Pacific Basin countries and increasingly in Europe. Before it is assimilated here, and probably just about the time Blu DVD technology takes hold, we got a peek at what the future has to hold.

It’s called SHDTV — we hate it when acronyms aren’t easy to remember/say — or super-high-definition TV. Think of a screen image that has 16x more data than HDTV. In the demonstration you suddenly understand what immersion video means!

But don’t worry it is still a way off.

Introducing the Closed Approach

Showing that the third time is a charm, HP joined the stage with Microsoft to rekindle the idea that digital entertainment is really what people wanted in their living room. But unlike the growing number of CE manufacturers, who are ready to rollout digital entertainment products at CES, they had a vague reminiscence of something we use in our home office — oh yes a PC.

The media center “”solutions”” were billed as your answer to accessing your music, your movies, your home videos and your photos on a single device (PC) with a remote control. Of course they weren’t as elegant as Apple’s new iMac (admittedly another closed solution) or as elegant/powerful as Sony’s Type X.

But they do leverage HP’s rich heritage in the PC and digital photo markets. In addition they leverage MS’s new Media Center software which has enough of the Windows XP look and feel for some of you to find the solution comforting. However, it hasn’t attracted the nearly 50% of the households in the country who don’t have a PC at home and want an overwhelming reason to bring one home…at any price.

As IDC noted, of the more than 177 million PCs shipped this year only about 550,000 were media center PCs.

However, perhaps a digital entertainment system that touts a 1TB storage space might make us change from the office-based wireless solution we now have to something that sits atop (or perhaps behind) our HD set.

Max Spindle is a pseudonym for an IT industry insider

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