The "networked video PC" will play a central role in television viewing. Consumers will be able to get the full array of high-definition entertainment video into the PC. The new Vista/Viiv PCs will act as high-definition PVRs and will be able to distribute streaming and recorded video to any screen in the house using the new networking technologies.
In the first part of this article last month, we described the many technologies involved in media networking, and covered the emerging home networking technologies in some detail; these promise sufficient speed, range and quality to carry digital video around the home--not low-quality "PC video", but the entertainment programming we're used to watching on television sets and increasingly now watch in high definition. Since these networking technologies don't require new wiring, they will usher in a mass market for networked video. We also described the DigitalDeck system we're currently testing in our home, which focused our attention on the interaction of the PC with existing home consumer electronics technologies.
In the second part of this story, we look at the emergence of "the video PC". We first discuss the Microsoft and Intel initiatives centered on the "media" aspects of the PC; by mid-2007, this will be in full flower as Microsoft's Vista initiative catches up with Intel's Viiv, already under way. The following article discusses how entertainment video gets into the video PC.
Windows Vista is Microsoft's brand name for the next generation of Windows. Previously code-named Longhorn, Vista will replace Windows XP in 2007. More than five years in development, Vista is a very substantial upgrade, with major improvements in features, security, and appearance. Windows Aero, the new Vista graphical user interface, looks a lot like Apple's latest Macintosh interface.
Vista will be available in six "editions"--one for emerging markets, two for enterprise use, and three retail versions for the consumer market. Media Center is not a separate Vista edition--it's a feature of both upper-end retail versions of Vista. The top-end "Vista Ultimate" is analogous to a combination of Windows XP's Professional and Media Center editions, with all the enterprise features and all the media center features.
For the consumer market, Microsoft's advance promotion emphasizes Vista's support for all kinds of media. Microsoft positions Vista as "the center for your digital memories," encouraging consumers to store their digital pictures and videos on the Vista PC. All but the basic editions of Vista include built-in applications for music downloading, a photo gallery, a movie maker, and a new media player.
While using a PC for music and photos is in the mainstream today, using a PC for digital video is still emerging. Many features of Vista are designed to facilitate capturing, displaying and networking video--both video recorded on the PC hard drive and live video from external sources.
In Vista, Media Center provides Microsoft's preferred user interface for video--both on the PC and the wide-screen TV: "Because TVs and computer monitors are moving towards widescreen and high-definition displays, Windows Media Center in Windows Vista has been optimized to make enjoying your photos, home movies, and TV in your living room a better experience than ever before."
Microsoft promotes the use of the Xbox 360 as a Windows Media Center Extender in the living room--"Windows Media Center Extenders allow you to leave the PC in the office and enjoy your music, photos, movies, and TV anywhere in the house".
With earlier versions of Media Center Edition, Microsoft did not succeed in getting non-Microsoft Windows Media Center Extenders into the home; the few other companies that adopted this approach withdrew their products after a short time in the market. Without abandoning Media Center Extenders, Microsoft has now taken a more inclusive approach to media networking.
Vista Networking -- Rally Technologies
With the newly branded Windows Rally Technologies, Microsoft is working to create an ecosystem of connected devices--including devices not based on Windows operating systems. Rally provides a collection of technologies with a royalty-free licensing program. For consumer applications, Rally has two major purposes:
Using the Rally Technologies, installing a networked device is intended to be as effortless as installing a Plug-n-Play USB device--plug it in and it works. For security, wireless devices will require the entry of a PIN code.
For network management, Vista provides a new graphical representation of the network topology, showing all connected devices. The implementation of Rally's Link Layer Topology Discovery protocol (LLTD) enables the graphical view of the network and device capabilities.
LLTD also provides the QoS mechanism at the device level so that sensitive applications such as streaming video get priority over less-sensitive applications. The "Quality Windows Audio/Video Experience" (qWAVE) API in Vista provides prioritized media streaming to LLTD-enabled devices; qWAVE is compliant with the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) QoS guidelines.
Windows Logo Program for Hardware
Wireless networks are especially difficult for video, most especially for full-resolution high-definition video. In a paper on its website, Microsoft acknowledged that some users of Windows XP Media Center Edition were disappointed in their experience when using wireless networks for video streaming.
To better fulfill user expectations, Microsoft created a Windows Logo Program for wireless devices designed to provide a good video-streaming experience. This program requires wireless routers to support both 802.11a (5 GHz) and 802.11g (2.4 GHz), with the 5 GHz spectrum used for time-sensitive media streaming and 2.4 GHz used for best-efforts data.
This logo program is being extended to Vista and 802.11n in conjunction with the Rally technologies. The logo requires Wi-Fi certification plus tests including continuous rate ("a simulated high-definition video stream...at 22 Mbps for 8 hours with less than 1% packet loss") and range ("...at 22 Mbps for 1 hour with less than 1% packet loss through two walls and 75 indoor feet...").
Intel Viiv is Intel's branding for a consumer processing platform "designed for the enjoyment of digital entertainment". Like the earlier Centrino branding for wireless, Viiv (rhymes with "live") is a single branding for a combination of components: high-speed dual-core 64-bit processors, high-performance chipsets, home theater quality audio, RAID storage and networking. The Viiv branding is not just for hardware -- it also includes digital entertainment such as movies, TV, music and games from major providers.
Many Viiv-compliant PCs were shown at CES early this year. Most were examples of the "living room PC" Intel has been promoting for several years, high-end PCs packaged to look like consumer electronics components. As an example, the Integra NVS-7.7 Integrated Media Center PC shown in the picture is a recently announced Viiv-certified PC for the living room.
Many mainline PC companies also now include Viiv-branded PCs as premium product offerings for the consumer market. These are more typically packaged as desktop PCs designed for use with a wide-screen (16x9) LCD monitor.
Intel's website includes a separate section on the Viiv story for consumers. While Intel has tried to explain the Viiv story to consumers, we frankly find it quite confusing, especially Intel's attempt to combine a specific set of Intel-specific hardware features with software and applications that come from other companies. Perhaps Intel will clarify its Viiv messages when it launches the Core Duo 2 processor family, expected on the same day as this report.
Viiv Networked Devices
Intel has started certifying "Intel Viiv technology verified devices" for use with Viiv. These will include "network infrastructure devices" such as routers and gateways, and digital media adapters. Intel's website includes a list of devices that have passed Intel's tests and vendors such as Buffalo have announced media adapters designed to work with Viiv PCs.
Intel's approach to media networking has many elements in common with Microsoft's, but some appear to be different. To better understand Viiv networking, we talked on the phone about a month ago with Intel's Merlin Kister, Marketing Director, Desktop Platform Group.
Merlin said that Intel was working closely with Microsoft. All of today's Viiv systems are based on Windows XP Media Center Edition. When Windows Vista is released, Viiv branding will require the Premium or Ultimate editions, which include Media Center. (PCs based on the basic editions of Vista without Media Center will not be eligible for Viiv branding.)
We observed that Microsoft promotes the Media Center GUI in both PCs and media adapters such as the Xbox 360. Merlin said that while Viiv-branded PCs use the Media Center graphical user interface for media applications, the choice of the GUI for networked devices is up to the device vendor.
We asked about the requirements for Viiv certification. Merlin said all Viiv devices are DLNA compliant and Intel tests compliance with all DLNA formats. Networked devices need to communicate with the Viiv server and support DTCP-IP for link protection when delivering premium content.
We asked Merlin whether the Viiv branding would be applied to network devices and he said "Viiv branding is only for PC products built with specific Intel hardware and software." Intel has not formally announced the branding used to identify networked media devices that have been certified to work with Viiv PCs, but Intel's keynote address at CES said it would be "Enjoy with Viiv".
Media Players for Viiv and Vista
In early June, Buffalo and BenQ simultaneously announced media players "designed to work with Intel Viiv technology-powered PCs". Both new players are based on the Philips Semiconductors Nexperia media processor and Mediabolic's Media Player software, and claim compliance with "with an array of digital home specifications" including uPnP, DLNA, DTCP-IP and Microsoft's DRM-10. Buffalo and BenQ are both major players in home networking, although better known in their home markets (Japan and Taiwan, respectively) than in North America.
The BenQ DMP300 Digital Media Player operates with 802.11b/g networking and includes a wide variety of audio and video outputs including S/PDIF digital audio and HDMI digital video. The Buffalo LinkTheater Wireless-A&G Media Player (PC-P4LWAG) operates in both the 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz bands (as required by Microsoft's Windows Logo Program). To address a common concern when using PCs as part of the television experience, both devices support the Viiv mechanism "to enable the device to remotely awaken a PC from its sleeping state."
Separately, in late May Buffalo and Mediabolic had jointly announced that they were working together to develop a media player "designed to work with the Microsoft Windows Vista operating system" and had "implemented "Windows Rally Technologies" on an upcoming version of the Buffalo LinkTheater Network Media Player".
To learn more about these new devices, we talked on the phone in late May with Bob Selzler, Mediabolic's VP of Marketing, and Chris Day, GM of the Media Processing Group at Philips.
We asked Chris whether the Philips PNX1502 chip used in these devices is designed for high-definition TV. He said the chip was really designed for standard-definition video, and this is appropriate since existing devices are limited by the effective speed of the 802.11g wireless link. The devices do have HDMI video outputs appropriate for high-definition flat-panel TVs; the chips provide "high-quality standard definition with high-definition up-conversion." Chris said the next generation of devices will be targeted to 802.11n networking; they will be based on the PNX1700 chip with full support for the AVC video codec.
We asked Bob for Mediabolic's view of the competition between computer makers, consumer electronics companies and video service providers as all these new technologies move into the home. He said "Everybody is claiming they're at the hub of the digital home; we're in nearly all of them and we don't care."
The announcements of Viiv and Rally devices from Buffalo and Mediabolic made us wonder whether devices would be designed for both Viiv and Vista/Rally, or whether they would be separate devices. From the discussion we gathered that they might be separate boxes, at least in the near future.
We believe the industry is suffering through some growing pains, with Viiv and Vista out of synch due to the Vista launch delays. We suspect that once Vista is fully launched in the consumer market next year, many networked devices will carry logos for both Viiv and Vista.