Set-top box vs the PC

06 Sep 2006

Telcos making plans for video services are already aware that there will be more to IPTV than the TV bit, as the set-top box (STB) evolves from an interface for channel-surfing to a gateway for value-added services, from interactive channels and shopping to DVRs and home networking hubs that can distribute IPTV services anywhere in the home.

The STB/gateway paradigm has already launched an arms race of sorts as STB manufacturers race to stuff as much functionality into STBs as possible. It's also prompted other companies to get into the STB/gateway, such as Motorola and Cisco (the latter of whom bought Scientific-Atlanta as part of its foray into the sector). Result: STBs are increasingly packing sophisticated technology, says Geof Heydon, Asia Pacific director of innovation and market development at Alcatel.

'STBs for IPTV are really PCs in disguise,' he says. 'From a hardware standpoint, they're almost the same thing sold as different products. A really good quality PC can do what a set-top box does.'

Over the last couple of years, the PC hardware and software sector has been taking that notion to heart. The rise of so-called media servers and multimedia PCs have sought to position PCs as the central media box in the home, serving not only as DVRs but also video distribution hubs, enabling users to view their TV shows, movies, digital photos or favorite YouTube videos anywhere in the home from one source. Since that logically includes the living room, many companies are working on ways to converge the two-foot/lean-forward PC experience and the ten-foot/lean-back TV experience.

This is hardly a new idea - the idea of multimedia-PCs-as-home-entertainment-hub has been around since at least the early 90s. But it's not been until recently, with the arrival of larger, cheaper hard drives, integrated processors, the growth of viable home networking technologies and the rise of digital content itself, that the media server business has finally started to gain traction.

Microsoft has been touting its Media Center PC solution as the future of home entertainment systems, while Intel's latest cause celebr‾has been Viiv, a solution that promises to allow TV viewers to download movies, subscribe to TV shows and create their own self-updating video collection - all of which is searchable by keyword, and all of which can be operated using a TV remote instead of a mouse. Apple has similar plans for a PC-TV solution.

Where does the STB fit in all this‾ Depending on whom you ask, the STB may not exist in five years. A technology called CableCARD intends to make media servers cable-ready, eliminating the need for a cable STB. Meanwhile, software company Verimatrix is reportedly developing a PC app that will not only allow IPTV subscribers to watch their TV channels from any broadband-connected PC, but could also - according to anonymous sources quoted in Light Reading, anyway - enable a Media Center PC to replace the STB altogether.

The media center revolution

Little wonder, then, that analysts are bullish on the media server market. ABI Research principal analyst Michael Wolf says that the PC media server market alone will grow from $3.7 billion this year to $44.8 billion by 2011.

'With the arrival of faster in-home digital networking technologies such as MoCA, an industry-accepted framework for networked digital media distribution in DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance), and the increase in both pay-TV and Internet content moving over in-home networks, the home media server is becoming a key beachhead in the digital home,' says Wolf.

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