December 29, 2005

What ever happened to Linux media center PCs?

Author: Jay Lyman

A year ago, Linux seemed poised to take on the living room, in the form of home media center PCs and systems. But last year's product announcements have not materialized into this year's Linux-based consumer systems.

Before losing her job at the helm of Hewlett-Packard, CEO Carly Fiorina peppered a Consumer Electronics Show keynote with word of HP's coming Media Hub, a machine capable of television and display-centric computing that ran on Linux. The machine, announced alongside the company's latest PC-centric Digital Entertainment Center (DEC) systems running Windows XP Media Center, was promised by fall of 2005. Today, it is nowhere to be found.

HP media center PCs based on Microsoft XP Media Center operating system, however, are readily available. Thanks to the removal of a TV tuner and the resulting price reductions, they are selling quite well, company spokesperson Pat Kinley told NewsForge.

"We're doing really well with media center PCs," she said. "In fact, of the four million [licenses] that Microsoft says have been sold for the Media Center PC operating system, HP sales account for about a million of those units -- just over a million in fact -- so we are doing quite well."

But like Fiorina, the Linux-based HP media hub -- billed as "the first high-definition TV (HDTV) media hub blending photos, music, TV, and video with set-top box and dual-tuner digital video recorder" -- is long gone.

Kinley said not long after last January's CES announcement of the Linux-based media hub, the company saw the need to change direction.

"Not long after that, I would say within a couple of months, what we realized was that it would be far better for users if we included that kind of technology with our digital TVs," she said. "And so, a couple of months ago, we announced technology called advanced digital media technology that will be included in TVs that come out in 2006 and it's going to have the kind of functionality that we think users are looking for."

The new HP advanced media technology tubes, or flat screens to be more accurate, sport 50- to 65-inch screens and "first-of-its-kind on-screen thumbnail navigation feature that allows consumers to see, on one screen, all of the video sources feeding into the TV."

Market unreal, integration appeal

Jupiter Research Vice President Michael Gartenberg, who predicted the demise of HP's multi-platform strategy soon after the Linux media hub and iApple iPod device support were announced, was not surprised in reporting that the Linux-based media hub was "canned permanently."

"Part of it is too many platforms," he said. "Part of it is the market. This type of media device is way ahead of its time."

HP was not the only place supposedly producing a Linux-based home media PC a year ago. Some predicted Shuttle hardware would work well with the open source Cyberlink PowerCinema suite, but that talk has been lost in the noise.

"A lot of people wanted to build things on top of Linux," Gartenberg said. "But the market's just not there -- you buy that device and it's sort of a one-facet thing. That's why there's more support for Windows Media, plus it ties into Xbox, iPod, and other devices."

Shuttle Director of Product Marketing Kevin Tu said while the company is currently in the process of certifying its XPC media center PCs with major Linux distributors, it does not currently offer any Linux-based machines for sale.

"There has always been a discussion of bringing Linux-based media PCs for their low-cost market appeal," Tu said. "I believe there was even some rumbling over Linux-powered Intel ViiV PCs a few months ago. The main reason being media PCs are currently too pricey to widely penetrate the mainstream market, especially when the average-priced media PC is about twice that of a normal desktop PC. A Linux-powered PC with all the trimmings could be delivered at a price point that would be very competitive."

Tu explained that prior to Microsoft, a media PC required a multitude of third-party programs to deliver the features consumers wanted -- DVR, music, photos, etc. In addition, the software still made consumers feel like they were on the PC at the desk, not relaxing in the den.

"The main appeal of Windows XP Media Center Edition is the tight integration of features and interface," Tu said. "Consumers no longer need multiple programs, so it doesn't feel like a plethora of third-party programs stacked upon each other. It's the ease of use -- there is a single interface to access TV, music, and photos."

Still, Tu indicated it is a struggle to convince consumers that PCs, whether Linux or Windows, have a place in the family room.

"It's going to take some time and effort to educate the consumers," he said. "It's hard to escape the stereotypical view of a PC -- blue screens of death, adware, viruses. Until we get a firm handle on these things it'll be hard to morph the desktop PC into the living room media center."

Taking out the tuner to take market share

Toni Dubois, an analyst with Current Analysis said that while HP and other Linux-based media center PC ideas may have died, Microsoft has succeeded in capturing more than half the media center PC market by removing the TV tuner and pushing down the price of systems.

"There have been quite a few takes and quite a few angles; the only one that has taken off and taken hold is the Windows Media operating system," she said, reporting that Microsoft's media center OS accounted for 52 percent of desktops sold in the US during October 2005.

Contrasting that to a share of about only 7 percent of desktops sold with the Windows Media operating system in October 2001, Dubois credited the gains to the removal of the TV tuner and resulting media center PC price points below $1,000. While there were no tunerless or tuner-upgradeable media center PCs for sale in 2004, more than 80 percent of the systems now ship without tuners, Dubois said.

Endpoint Technologies Associates founder and industry analyst Roger Kay credited Microsoft's media center success to an improved operating system that has provided a better experience and been cut in price. He said that loosened licensing that allows easier installation of the media center OS on Windows PCs has also helped.

As for Linux, Kay said the HP media hub was a good idea, but perhaps did not make it to market because the experience and price of Windows Media OS, supported by a "richer ecosystem," has easily won vendor support and consumers.

"[Linux] may be limited to special function, special purpose devices," Kay said.

Gartenberg pointed out that Linux has quietly taken off in popular DVR devices, including TiVo. But he noted that the operating system itself is not a selling point. "The key is, a lot of other products are being positioned as devices you buy because it's Linux," he said. "That's not why people buy things."

Dubois said there is no doubt Microsoft has a big jump on Linux in the space. "It's an uphill battle, like [desktop] PCs," she said. "Microsoft is ahead of the game. They've been working for three years and it's finally paying off."

Dubois said the next challenge for Microsoft and Linux is wedding the multitude of media being consumed with the storage space required. Here she hinted at some opportunity for Linux, which may be able to ride its strength on the server into the living room.

"Ultimately, I think we're going to see home-based servers," she said. "There's so much digital media, it's not going to be in the TV."

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