Wither the Media Player

Posted: April 21, 2011 in Apple, Convergence, Google, Microsoft
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

From the earliest days of the PC we have hooked our computers to the TV. Originally the main display device for the personal computer was the TV. As inexpensive, high resolution monitors became available we divorced the computer form the TV. However, there has been a constant pull to reconnect the two. Microsoft made a major push in this area with Windows Media Player. I thought this would be a big hit. I played with the software and found a lot to like. However, I never quite got around to a Media PC. They were either noisy or expensive or lacked certain features. The cable industry dragged its feet on cable tuners and the CableCard and helped to kill off the media center. Rather than enabling a new technology the old guard stood in the path of progress.  This was sad. I liked the Microsoft Media Extender idea. An inexpensive device would allow your Media Center device to ship music, pictures and video to another TV elsewhere on your home network. Today few owners know or care that their Xbox 360 can be used as a Media Extender.

In another attempt to bring media to the TV we have the stand alone media player. There have been numerous devices in this space. The Tvix devices were the first I ran into. Later there were devices from Netgear and finally Apple. Today Apple TV is the best know device but also one of the most limited in functionality. For all of the myriad devices out there, nothing has really taken off. Yeah, Apple sells a lot of Apple TV devices but the numbers pale compared to iPad sales. Yet, there must be something there. People keep trying to get it right.

A related group of devices is the network enabled DVD player. Many of the newer DVD players can stream Netflix and YouTube. This is an easy way for someone to get some media connectivity. Hey, you were going to buy that Blu-Ray player anyway. You might as well be able to stream Netflix. Just click here to check out a nice Pioneer model.

The next group of devices are the network enabled game systems. Netflix is a major item on all of them. The PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii are all Netflix enabled. For a lot of people this is their first and easiest introduction to media streaming. Some like the the PS3 are much more capable than others such as the Wii. Currently I use a PS3 to play movies off of a central file server. The limitation is that I only have one PS3 so I can only stream to one TV.

There is still yet another group. This is the group of network enabled TV’s. Here the TV is connected directly to the network and is able to go on the web or view content off of a file server without an external device. Examples include Viera Connect and Bravia Internet Video. A problem with these devices is that the TV update cycle is very long. Unlike smartphones, people don’t update their TV’s every two to four years. It’s one thing to buy a new $99 Apple TV and quite another to upgrade a $3,000 big screen TV. Still, I suspect this is the winning approach. People want fewer boxes. Convergence says people want devices to merge. Just like the amp, preamp and tuner merged to make the stereo receiver the dominant form factor so I think the game system, media player and TV will merge. In addition, they want connectivity on every TV and not just the big one in the living room. This process will be slowed by several hurdles. Some TV manufacturers, including Panasonic, are going their own way. This will limit the size of their application ecosystem. Those going with Google TV will run into fragmentation as Google has trouble bringing new features to new hardware without making older systems orphans. Apple will want to be controlling. Yeah, what else is new. They will offer TV’s but that means the ever present Apple tax i.e.high prices. They will also face the issue of rapid obsolescence. I have a solution to Apple’s problem but I doubt they will listen to me. Apple should define a small form factor card that holds the Apple TV and allows it to be embedded in the TV and upgraded later. You would buy your LG large screen TV branded with “Apple TV inside!” and upgrade the card for $99 every two or three years. That would keep your experience fresh. It would preserve that unique ability Apple has to make Apple fanboys feel anything older than two years needs to be thrown out after a trip to the Apple store.

A good friend disagrees with me when it comes to the media box getting consumed by the TV. He owns two Apple TV devices. He says they are small and cheap. He feels the difference in the upgrade cycles will keep the devices separate. We’ll see. What do you think?

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