Is that a computer in your living room?

I never thought I'd say this, but I'm beginning to think my entertainment world will eventually revolve around a computer.

Back when the Web was an infant, "digital convergence" was all the rage. Computers, communications, consumer electronics, and entertainment technology were supposedly going to merge into one wonderful universe. The big question was whether the computer or the TV would be at the center.

Today we take convergence for granted. Communications and entertainment went digital and computers got smarter. It's a pretty sorry PC that can't play DVDs and CDs, not to mention handling all manner of digital photo, video, and music files.

Today's best TVs accept a plethora of inputs, but they're still little more than very fancy monitors. Since those inputs can easily come from a PC instead of dedicated devices like DVD players, the logical conclusion is that the center of my media world will ultimately be a PC -- though it may not look like the one sitting under my desk or on my lap.

Sure, you could get a TiVo, a DVD/CD recorder, a multimedia receiver and a device to show photos on a TV. But you'd need to find space for them all, tame a snake pit of cables and somehow integrate the remotes.

Put 'em all into a single computer that sits where the other stuff does now, and you save space and cabling and can browse the Web in the bargain. With luck, you might even be able to upgrade to exotic new hardware as it arrives -- say, Blu-ray high-definition drives. And with enough bandwidth, you might one day use your machine to watch high-def programming delivered via the Net in a format like Windows Media. You might even network the box to devices throughout the house.

Windows XP Media Center Edition is Microsoft Corp.'s entry into the living room, but the machines that run it still feel like computers. It's hard to imagine the family enjoying entertainment from a noisy machine susceptible to worms and crashes. One alternative is a dedicated device, like the highly touted Moxi set-top box. But where do the designers of such boxes say "enough"? How will you feel when you want the latest videocam software and your month-old machine won't run it?

The battle isn't over yet, but consumer electronics companies are on the verge of losing it. Lesser-known computer vendors offer home-theater PCs that have cases designed to fit where consumer devices do and that handle all but the very latest formats. After going its own way for years, even Sony Corp. has Media Center PCs.

Still, the PC isn't quite ready for its close-up. As far as I know, there's not a PC on the planet that has a satellite or digital cable decoder or that can power big speakers. But this is hardly an impossible dream.

Microsoft has spent piles of money over the years trying to worm its way into the dedicated set-top-box business. My guess is that its Media Center approach is going to be the one that ends up winning -- even if it's Apple Computer Inc. that ends up showing us how a media computer should really work.

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Stephen Manes

PC World
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