The Truth Behind Media Center

By Brian L. Clark

Tuning Fork

Each week, I'm "blessed" with numerous research reports, all touting some newly-discovered nugget of information bound to have an impact on the long-term market for hardware or technology services. Generally speaking, these things are nothing more than educated speculation. But every once in a while, one comes to my inbox that feels as though it's trying to create a market that just isn't there. Take, for instance, one I received this week from well-known research firm Parks Associates. The headline was straightforward: "Sales of Home Media Servers at 50 Million Units by 2010."

Apparently, they know something about this market that I don't.

The report concludes that "demand for media backup, competition among video providers and wider accessibility of IP content are driving deployment." Aside from the fact this statement makes it seem like these things are already selling like hotcakes, that last sentence actually got me thinking they might at least be on the right track.

"Consumers will benefit from the capabilities and features provided by home media servers, which will enhance their home media experiences and offer safeguarding and storage for their digital content," according to Kurt Scherf, vice president and principal analyst. "Many industry players—including technology vendors, equipment manufacturers and service providers—will benefit from the development and distribution of centralized storage platforms to the home."

You know, I get the whole, "I want to have everything in one place and distribute it everywhere" mentality. But the idea of trying to transfer my somewhat substantial iTunes library to another machine (again), and then going through the process of authorizing the machine and de-authorizing another machine—yes, I've reached my five PC limit—is more than I can bear. And I'm certainly not going to waste precious time ripping my DVD collection to a new machine. That said, there is something to the idea of having a central storage place for new video and film content coming available via the Internet.

So where is this magical media box going to come from? After all, someone still has to make the hardware and create an interface users are comfortable with. So right off the bat, that all but eliminates Sony. Not that the consumer electronics giant won't try. In fact, I attended the event where they introduced the Vaio XL-1 Series. When I asked why they decided to go with Media Center, the simple answer was that they tried their own OS (remember Giga Pocket) and the world yawned. Alas, the reality is Sony may be great at making electronic devices, but it sucks at software. And the company knows it. So rather than work with someone outside to develop a groundbreaking and intuitive OS people would be comfortable with, they caved and went with the clunky interface and limited capabilities of Windows Media Center.

To be fair, that also eliminates the vast majority of PC manufacturers that can't get beyond Windows as an all-purpose tool, whether you're at the office or at your leisure. And therein lies the problem. I say again, the general public just doesn't want Redmond's drop-down menus and reboots mucking up their viewing experience. If you've ever used a digital entertainment device running Windows Media Center, you know what I mean.

It's interesting to speculate on what Apple will do, but I'm not sure Apple gives a crap about building media servers so much as it does making scads of money selling content at the iTunes store. The company doesn't easily cave to fads, either. I remember talking to Apple in 2000 about when it was going to release its own Internet appliance. Apple's response: The iMac was the ultimate Internet appliance. Turns out they were right and the analysts were wrong. (Confession: At Money, we actually thought Gateway had a better long-term strategy.)

In any case, iTunes offers music and video and, given the recent marriage of Pixar and Disney, is likely to sell feature films down the road. One would think if anyone were going to figure out a way to deliver first-run content—the kind people might actually want to store—to the masses, it would be this group, with Jobs at the helm. But again, that leads to the device to store this stuff. Apple seemed to be heading to a solution with the release of the Mac Mini and the development of Front Row, but that program's capabilities are even more limited than WMC. And frankly, I'm tired of waiting for Jobs to give his Cupertino Kids permission to just build one. Which leads me back to the original question: Who is going to make this media server Parks is so hot on?

Well, if I were an enterprising young consumer electronics executive, I'd be greasing the wheels in Cupertino about developing an iTunes-like interface to license for my brand new device. Apple may be notoriously difficult to deal with. But really, what other option is there? Vista? Not on my TV.

Brian L. Clark is a reporter and consultant on all things digital, runs the The Tech Enthusiast's Network, and writes for Money, Men's Health, and Laptop. Read more Tuning Fork here.