Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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The Media PC

Industry mavens have been predicting the advent of convergence for years. Had the public actually bought into this prognostication however, we'd all be seated in front of our computers every time we wished to make a phone call, watch television, see a movie, check our messages or listen to music. Currently though, none of these have any significant basis in reality.

We all seem, despite the inherent inconveniences, to prefer compartmentalizing our technology. VCR / television combo units, all-in-one stereo systems, combination telephone / answering machines and the like have been around for years and yet have never been as popular as their component based competitors.

While we may clearly see the advantages afforded us by computer based versions of our favorite tech toys, we simply don't purchase them as replacements. Are we just slow to change old habits? Are we perhaps concerned about the risks single points of failure represent in potentially bringing all our technology to a grinding halt; or do we just like having more shiny boxes around the house? Well perhaps we can have our cake and eat it too.

Companies are now turning to client server technology in an effort to position computers as core repositories for all our digital content. The concept is that given the vast and inexpensive capacity available on today's hard drives, you can centrally store your entire music collection, record television shows, archive movies, photos -- indeed anything you can create digitally -- and stream this content to unobtrusive client devices throughout your home by way of wireless networking.

There are several vendors vying for a piece of this potentially lucrative market, but as yet no clear contenders for a leadership position have emerged, given the novelty of the products within the space. Surprisingly however, most are only addressing one area of digital delivery, be it music, video or telephony.

For example, a new product, MP3 Beamer (www.mp3beamer.com) targets consumers who want to store their entire music collection digitally and "beam" it to various devices around the home including other computers, your iPod, PDA and home stereo. The product is sold as a stand alone unit for $399 USD or as software you can install on your own PC at $69.95. MP3 Beamer will batch process your compete collection by ripping one CD after another while concurrently pulling album and song details from the Internet to include as extended information in the MP3 file.

Truth be told however, MP3 Beamer is really only a tweaked version of some free open source software originally designed to run on the Linux OS but now also available for the Windows and Macintosh platforms. SlimServer may be downloaded at no cost from www.slimdevices.com and features all the functionality of MP3 Beamer including the ability to stream your music from your home to your PC at work over the Internet!

Once your collection is digitized, you are ready to either serve your content to other networked devices or stream live to a wireless audio adapter like SMC's SMCWAA-B (www.smc.com). This product enables you to enjoy all your computer hosted tunes over the home stereo with full digital clarity – never having to change a CD. Including a full featured remote control, this device at $125 US not only facilitates playback of your own audio collection, but even allows you to stream thousands of internet based radio stations from all over the planet.

Microsoft of course, not to be left out of the action, recently launched Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 (www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/mediacenter). This software is considerably more comprehensive than MP3 Beamer as it includes provisions for all digital media types. Media Center is a full desktop operating system (XP Service Pack 2) with tons of extremely easy to use applications housed in a completely redesigned user interface.

Clearly focused on the home user, Media Center Edition is a snap to navigate and even complete novices can undertake some of the traditionally more challenging computing tasks with ease. With the addition of a wireless client box supplied by  HP, Cisco or even an  adapter for your X-Box, you can enjoy your audio or video based digital content from anywhere in the home. The OS supports up to three video capture devices (one HDTV), allowing you to record one program while watching another or simultaneously view different feeds on a variety of devices. Affording users the capability to create photo slideshows complete with soundtrack, see who's calling on the telephone (or set to do not disturb while watching a movie), author and edit DVDs or share photos with friends over the Internet; the MS Media Center Edition not only ably handles audio and video, it delivers the best of the Windows world directly to your couch.

While there is clearly a bright future ahead for digital media as a whole, it remains to be seen whether this new client server strategy will bear fruit for manufacturers. Were I a betting man however, I'd wager this equipment will not become mainstream for a year or two at least. That being said, the early adopters among us will certainly enjoy the power and freedom offered by this emerging technology, while those late to the party will surely benefit from the inevitable improvements resulting from our initial experiences.

For free streaming video software, check out MythTV for the Linux platform at www.mythtv.org. With all the features of high end PVR software included in the likes of TiVo, this application is without question an excellent addition to anyone's PC.

Originally Published in HUB magazine Connected column, April 2005 by columnist Ray Richards


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