Home Theater PC Speculations

So last week I detailed my experiences with a sort-of Home Theater PC (HTPC), namely a laptop where I got experimental.  I noted that I would discuss their place in the economy and the career implications.  This of course, is that column because hey, I promised.

And here’s the answer: Not yet because there are way, way too many possible use cases and no real settled technologies, and what comes eventually will be gradual.

Oh sure it may seem to be a great time for HTPCs to make an appearance.  For brands of them to appear.  For do-all devices to come out.

Right now, there is a definite realization that the big screen in your living room is a great way to run various media sources through, including non-traditional ones.

Right now, people are already used to running various media into their TVs, thanks to gaming consoles and VCRs and the like.

Right now, there are all sorts of experiments going on with a variety of technology and technical delivery methods.  Nothing is quite certain.

Right now, people aren’t sure of what they want – and thats what kills the idea of a sudden HTPC revolution.

The typical HTPC is something created or bought by a person with definite knowledge, specific needs, and probably someone that got the “man this is a huge monitor” thing about televisions.  It’s not really a big part of the market, because they’re doing it themselves.

Face it, it’s “shoving a computer on to a TV and setting it up to do certain things.”  That’s not the kind of market that’s going to get some companies going.  It’s probably not a market that people understand that well.

Sure, we do have HTPC like devices – which are basically the gaming consoles and a few ventures like Google TV and Apple TV.  Note which have been more successful – gaming, devices that evolved from another set of uses.

The real question is what do larger audiences want to do with “the big monitor in the living room” and how can people market to that.

  • Some people just want cable with extras.  Kind of like Tivo . . . and all the features cable is adding that is troubling Tvio.
  • Some people want to play DVDs.
  • Some people want to play games (that aren’t already on their phones).
  • Some people want to browse the web.
  • Some people want to use various streaming services.
  • Some people may even want to try further out things like video conferencing via living room TV (which I’ve done).

Then there’s the question of what people will pay for.  That suddenly kicks away a lot of possibilities, because I think unless you’re a gamer and media enthusiast, you’re not going to shell out the $500-$1000 it’d take to build an HTPC or get one of the evolving game consoles.  The price point, after a discussion with a friend, seems to be $200 for the “casual” person who wants some media enhancement to their television.

So based on this, I see a few things happening:

  1. Game consoles will continue to become HTPCs, and frankly Microsoft is ahead, though the chance to botch Durango seems pretty high to me.  They will turn into a kind of general media/streaming PC.
  2. Steam and others can produce competing devices, and if they integrate media (which is probably not that hard), they’ll also be HTPCs.  But for the near future, I think HTPCs will basically evolve out of gaming or gaming interest.
  3. I see the “gaming-media” boxes evolving towards server-like setups, central computers that stream media to a variety of devices and perhaps even function as the major computing device of the household.  I just don’t know if that’ll be successful.
  4. Once gaming-media PC’s become more accepted from a major manufacturer (read: Microsoft), I see room for other branded ones, but on a smaller level.  It’ll become “buy this non-Microsoft device.”
  5. Smaller devices, ala Roku, Apple TV, and Google TV are hard for me to speculate on.  The smaller use devices are a bit confusing as they don’t always integrate other features – like DVD players.  I think they will have to step up – to be more computerlike – or “step down” to be more embedded (which we’re already seeing).  TVs will adsorb some uses that peripheral devices had, if only because companies want to sell more.
  6. Beyond Microsoft there are a lot of companies not in gaming (Apple, Samsung, etc.) who have the potential to do some pretty impressive stuff.  I have a friend who simply plugged a MiniMac into a TV and, wham, media machine.  Watch them, they could steal Microsoft’s thunder.
  7. I would watch the Ouya and see what it evolves into – or what it’s adsorbed into.  I can see video-tech startups that exist only to be bought by others.

So ultimately I see the HTPC as a kind of destination for gaming and possibly other boxes, but it’ll come into play through other uses or be a potential purpose of a multi-use device.  I don’t see a thundering revolution of everyone tossing out their cable boxes, Tivos and Rokus and suddly plugging in a PC.  It’ll evolve over time.

Meanwhile people with less of an interest will just get new features on their televisions and eventually some of the specialist devices will reach a sweet spot they’ll be easy to purchase and usable.

I don’t see this producing some great revolution.  I think instead we’ve got an inevitable evolution over time punctuated with some exciting stuff (I’m looking at you, Piston).

Career-wise, here’s your takeaways:

  • The media PC is evolving, but I think it’s got another generation before it really exists commercially.  If you’re in Product design, think long-term.
  • Streaming is going to get bigger.
  • There are enough players to disrupt Microsoft’s seemingly inevitable evolution – and one of those, sadly, is Microsoft.  You may want to place your career bets with one of them, it may get interesting.
  • We need to see about two to four viable use cases for HTPC and HTPC like devices to consolidate around, and I think it’ll basically be “in the TV”, “in an easy peripheral that’s like a small computer”, and “a computer wearing a media hat.”
  • We have several platforms to develop on and it’ not hard to get a program out, so that Android game you write today could well be something people want to play on their TV tomorrow.  Think about porting (and screen sizes) even more than you do now thanks to phones.
  •  Marketing is going to be a joy for this (and I say that semi-sarcastically) because you have to market things people want, that exist in ways they never thought of, with price points that may or may not make sense.
  • This is inevitable because of the giant monitor in the living room.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at http://www.fantopro.com/, nerd and geek culture at http://www.nerdcaliber.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at https://www.stevensavage.com/.