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Vying for Domestic Domination

Computer or TV: Which will be the platform of choice for navigating the entertainment frontier?

January 17, 2002|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Brian Kendig, a computer consultant in Orlando, Fla., connected a computer to his TV set in the mid-1990s because he wanted a bigger screen for his computer video games.

"It worked, but the quality wasn't there," Kendig said. Nevertheless, he still has an Apple Macintosh hooked to his TV so he can surf the Web and play MP3 files in his living room.

The computer industry looks at consumers like Kendig and licks its chops. With sales of desktops in the dumpster, manufacturers are hoping to carve out expansive new roles for computers in entertainment and home automation--roles that prod the public to buy another PC.

In particular, companies such as Microsoft envision the computer as the hub of the new digital home, directing audio and video streams from room to room and pulling in new material from the Web.

At the recent International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Microsoft showed off new software that lets consumers play or display the audio, video and pictures on their computers with a simple remote control. It also demonstrated technology that would let consumers tote flat, touch-screen monitors around their homes while maintaining a wireless connection to their PC.

Other computer companies are developing entertainment-oriented products too, and not always with Microsoft. Hewlett-Packard, for example, has built a digital music center with Microsoft rival RealNetworks, while Compaq is working on a line of interconnected audio and video gear with Mediabolic.

Meanwhile, another camp is emerging that wants to minimize the role played by personal computers. These consumer electronics companies are building TV set-top boxes that bring the networking smarts and storage capacity of computers to the living room, but not the Windows (or Apple) operating system.

Examples on display at the Consumer Electronics Show included a next-generation personal TV recorder by TiVo that captures music, video and games from the Web, and a forthcoming Digital Library from Pioneer and Mediabolic that will store and transmit digital audio, video, photos and Web-based media.

These products represent the first salvos fired in the war to come over the wired home. The battle lines are loosely drawn, but the central dividing line is whether the computer or the TV will rule over the digital domain.

"There is absolutely a long, long fight ahead," said Gary Arlen, a media and consumer electronics consultant.

At stake for consumers is the development of easy-to-use products and services that enable people to enjoy video, music and the Internet anywhere in their homes. The more intense the competition, the faster new, innovative and potentially conflicting approaches will come to the market.

"Of course, the threat is incompatibility," Arlen said. "And increasingly, that is keeping people away from the business."

Richard Walker of Lumenati, a Bay Area software company that specializes in online services, sees a multibillion-dollar market for digital home devices. But before that market can take off, he said, companies must answer a fundamental question: What do consumers really want?

"There are lots of technologies you can throw at consumers, but what's going to stick?" asked Walker, Lumenati's vice president of products and technology.

Kendig, for one, doesn't find the idea of having a computer control his home entertainment universe very appealing.

"That's the case of a PC trying to be something it's not," he said.

This kind of reluctance is typical among consumers, yet it may be easy to overcome, Arlen said.

"If you call it a PC and it looks like a desktop PC, it's not a device that consumers want for entertainment," he said. "Make it silver, make it a cube, and it's a home controller. It's an entertainment controller.''

So far, however, Microsoft's efforts in the home entertainment field have produced mixed results. Its WebTV set-top box, which brought the Internet to TV screens, stumbled badly after signing up its first million customers, and its successor, UltimateTV, which added digital video recording to Web surfing, is off to a slow start. But sales of its Xbox game console have been strong since its debut in November.

Microsoft has some important allies, including Charter Communications and Samsung. But there are some powerful forces in the TV-centric camp, including AOL Time Warner and Sony.

Fujio Nishida, president and chief operating officer of Sony Electronics, said his company sees computers as a part of the home network, but not an essential part. Instead, Sony is taking a "PC-free" approach, creating devices that can connect to each other and the Internet without the intervention of a computer.

The biggest obstacle to the digital home today may be how difficult it is for even experts to connect home electronics into a network. "Unless and until you can solve those problems," Walker said, "the concept of these devices in different rooms talking to each other clearly is not going to work."

*

Jon Healey covers the convergence of entertainment and technology. He can be reached at jon.healey@latimes.com.

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