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Another Shotgun Wedding for the PC and TV

(click thumbnail)Moxi Media CenterThe news from January’s CES was like turning the clock back five years to that high-tech reality distortion field when world-changing ideas were a dime a dozen. Once again – long after it appeared dead – the marketers were back spinning another vision of the long-sought convergence between the personal computer and the television set.

Deja vu all over again? Another shotgun wedding of technologies, though they have proven as different as oil and water? Not this time, contend the proponents of the networked home where the PC and TV live in harmony rather than attempting to displace each other.

At CES, Microsoft’s Bill Gates endorsed the marriage, showing a prototype of a wireless tablet-like device that combines PC and TV capability.

But the boldest proponent of the resuscitation was veteran convergence warrior Steve Perlman of WebTV fame. In case you forgot, Perlman – formerly of Apple, Microsoft and General Magic – was one of the first engineers to seriously attempt to merge PC functionality into the television set.

Even though he sold WebTV (now MSN TV service) to Microsoft in April 1997 for $425 million, the central concept of Net surfing via the TV has been a failure. Despite the grand promises, most Internet users soon learned that the computer works best for accessing Web pages and the TV works best for watching passive entertainment programming.

Now Perlman has a new idea and a new company to bring it to market. The idea advances and attempts to simplify the integrated home networking of entertainment media. The company, launched at CES, is called Moxi Digital (formerly Rearden Steel Technologies). Again, Perlman integrates the PC and TV, but this time he allows each device to be used in the way its owner desires.


Perlman’s new product, the Moxi Media Center, essentially combines five electronic components into one. It’s a digital cable or satellite receiver, music jukebox, personal video recorder, DVD player and cable/DSL modem with Internet gateway. The new device, which replaces the set-top box, can be networked to four television sets in a home – each having full access to all media (with the exception of DVD).

Why not DVD? Ah, a big gotcha that we’ll get to in a moment. But first, the sales pitch.

With the Moxi Media Center, users can access hundreds of video channels and record and store more than sixty hours of video. The built-in jukebox allows the storage of as many as 500 of the user’s personal compact discs. The modem allows Web access to TVs, PCs, Macs and Palm devices over wireless, coax (existing cable wiring) and Ethernet transports. Everything can be accessed from any connected TV or computer in the house.

This concept of a networked home entertainment center is a big vision. But it comes with some serious catches that might cause many users to opt out. The "gotcha" involves severe restrictions involving copyright protections. In the fine print, Moxi notes: "Due to licensing restrictions, remote DVD playback is not available in homes using wireless networking." It also uses the term "secure" quite often, a term that in the real world has proven quite unfriendly to home recordists.

Perlman makes it clear that Moxi will use strong encryption technology to stringently enforce the digital rights of music and video content providers. Barriers to prevent sharing of copyrighted materials will be built into the system. However, the Media Center box will be so user friendly, suggests Perlman, that subscribers will find the convenience worth paying for.

Perhaps. The first test will probably come with EchoStar subscribers. The direct-to-home satellite provider has announced it will adopt Moxi Digital’s technology in future receivers. More importantly, the companies said they are developing a new service platform to sell content. "Beyond the core set of video, music and data applications in its flagship product, Moxi has architected its platform for the delivery of future services such as IP telephony, digital imaging and online gaming so that network operators can enable new revenue-generating applications easily through software upgrades," said a news release.


Not everyone buys into Perlman’s latest convergence vision. Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs sees the personal computer – without the TV – as the center of a "digital hub" that allows users to do such multimedia tasks as edit videos, burn DVDs, build MP3 music libraries and operate a digital photographic darkroom.

"Do we think that PCs and televisions are going to merge? No. The next great age of the personal computer is going to be the digital hub," Jobs told Reuters at the MacWorld tradeshow in January.

Significantly, Jobs has not shackled Apple’s video, music and photographic applications with severe copy protection restraints. Following last year’s Napster meltdown, Apple introduced its iPod portable music player, at a pricey $399, into a crowded market of MP3 portables. Unencumbered by copy protection, the iPod was an instant hit, selling 125,000 units in its first 60 days on the market.

Though Steve Perlman’s idea is compelling, he faces two severe obstacles. One is whether average, non-geek media consumers actually want a networked home (big question, even if it is simple to operate). And, if enough do, whether they will accept the copy protection restrictions. I suspect that even if the first obstacle is overcome, the second won’t be.

Steve Jobs, on the other hand, may win by simply giving the people what they want. Through a series of powerful new bundled applications, Apple lets the user easily configure a Macintosh for the given task – whether it be handling music, video or photographs. No restrictions or roadblocks.

And the TV … well, the TV remains what it has always been: a display to passively watch video programming. No more, no less.

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.