Tuning Fork

Media Server Madness



By Brian L. Clark

I don't remember when the obsession with home media servers developed, but it seems virtually every research firm has caught a bad case of media server fever. For example, this week a Parks Associates report arrived in my inbox claiming shipments of media servers would hit nearly 50 million by 2010. That echoed another recent report from ABI Research that declared "Media Server PC category to exceed $44 billion by 2011."

My question: Who the hell is buying these things?

But then I read what's actually considered a media server. Parks defines it as "a platform that can provide digital content to other platforms through certain networking technologies." In short, any network-attached device, like the Buffalo Technologies Linkstation 250GB Network Storage Center; multimedia PCs or any machine that runs Windows Media Center; set top devices, like TiVo or cable boxes from Scientific Atlanta; and high-end options like the McIntosh MS300 Music Server. ABI defines them pretty much the same.

After the Vista demonstration at this week's analysts meeting, I was curious to know what analysts thought would actually run these things. For those who didn't see it, a forlorn Micro-softy tried in vain to demonstrate a voice recognition program that performed so badly, analysts in the crowd laughed at the poor guy. In short, the disastrous demo didn't inspire confidence the company could ever produce good software for an entertainment device.

So I decided to ask Michael Wolf, ABI's principle analyst for broadband and multimedia research, to find out why he thought media servers would be so hot over the next few years. Wolf said Intel's push for Viiv to be the center of the digital home and new devices like the PS3 would make servers more appealing to consumers than today's options.

I can buy the PS3 angle, but when it comes to the push for Viiv, uh, no. And the problem is not with Intel. Rather, the problem is that these multimedia PCs are supposed to run Vista. These days, few people buy new PCs (Didn't someone recently declare the PC era over?) and virtually no one is buying Media Center PCs. So why would anyone buy Vista machines to run digital media? "Today Media Center is a hybrid," Wolf says, "but with Vista, it becomes part of the core operating system." I don't know about you, but the core of my entertainment experience will never be a PC.

Besides, God knows when Vista's actually coming to market. Sure, Microsoft says it's supposed to arrive early next year, but they don't sound overly confident. In fact, one joke making the rounds this week was that Vista was to be renamed Windows 2010.

So what's the alternative? Well, I've said before that smart CE companies should think about how they can partner with Apple to develop an interface for their devices—one based on the iPod. Sure enough, this week analysts began saying iTunes could be the "Trojan Horse" that allows entry into the digital den. All that's required is for CE manufacturers to add support for iTunes to their products.

If there really is a market for home media servers, it makes sense people would gravitate to an interface they already know. Otherwise, the market is just another analysts' fantasy—the type that aims to create a market that doesn't really exist and costs companies a lot of money.

And that doesn't benefit anyone.