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Streaming to the Home

It's starting to happen — the Internet is beginning to impact home entertainment including TVs, VCRs, game consoles, and stereos. Streaming audio is already cropping up in devices like Panja's Broadband Music Player, which lets you stream your MP3.com music to your home entertainment system. Other products, likeAkoo's Kima, Turtle Beach's AudioTron, and SONICblue's newly released Rio Digital Audio Receive, let you pipe MP3 files to your home stereo.

Now, the next step is streaming video, and the industry is poising itself for a similar revolution. "As broadband penetration increases in the U.S., you're going to see more entertainment options flowing through the Web," said P.J. McNealy, a senior analyst at the research firm Dataquest. "You'll be able to watch what you want, where you want, when you want, and on what device."

Realizing this growing trend, streaming companies are expanding into the living room. RealNetworks and Hewlett-Packard announced today they would collaborateon a new line of digital entertainment products targeted to the home. RealNetworks will provide a Linux-based software platform that incorporates RealPlayer and RealJukebox for delivering audio and video. Although specific products weren't announced, they are expected to be introduced later this year, say the companies.

"As the computing and entertainment worlds converge, consumers are looking for ways to enhance their entertainment experiences," said Pradeep Jotwani, president, HP Consumer Business Organization. "This is a natural next step for HP, as we extend our leading technologies from the home office into other consumer products throughout the home. Relationships with RealNetworks, and partners in Internet content will help make HP's digital entertainment vision a reality."

Both RealNetworks and Microsoft have been moving to the home entertainment space recently. Earlier this year, RealNetworks made a deal with Wavefly, whichlets PCs wirelessly deliver Internet media to TVs or stereos. Microsoft, meanwhile, has shown off versions of its new operating system, codenamed Whistler, thatacts as a digital media hub. Last year, Microsoft unveiled deals with Intertainer and uniView to create a DSL set-top box that delivers streaming video to TV sets.

SONICblue Gets Video

One company looking to bring you what you want, where you want it, is SONICblue. The media maker formerly known as S3 is behind the Rio line of portable media players, and home networking products. And now they're getting into video. In early February, SONICblue announced it was acquiring ReplayTV, the maker of digital TV recorders.

"[We] had the video content and we didn't have the networking or music components," said Steve Shannon, vice president of marketing at ReplayTV. "SonicBlue was the opposite. It just made sense for both companies to get together."

Their plan is to create a home entertainment server connected to the Internet via a broadband modem that would then handle downloaded media — both audio and video — and send it to lightweight, inexpensive clients throughout the home. "You can have TV on-demand, music on-demand, the ability to access your media library even potentially from your car stereo," Shannon said.

Both companies believe that the future of home entertainment is the convergence of technologies. But this idea is nothing new, said Shannon. "When you play a DVD, you hear the sound through your stereo system," he said. "It really is all one system and further integrating that system will give you a better quality experience and access to more media."

Caching In

McNealy feels that SONICblue and ReplayTV are on the right track: "There's no question that the household home network is going to get more intelligent and morewidely spread." Therefore, a device such as this server can function as the brains of the network, allocating the resources where they are needed throughout the home, he said.

But even broadband options like cable and DSL access aren't fat enough for real-time streaming of high-quality video. That's where ReplayTV's hard drive comes in. "If you have storage in the home, then it's not that much of an issue," said Andy Wolfe, CTO of SONICblue. Over a DSL line, you can pump content in overnight, to deliver all the media they need, he said.

The idea that you can have a hard drive that can hold more than just TV is key, said Josh Bernhoff, an analyst at Forrester Research. But even with all the elements in place for SONICblue, media servers and clients that capture the entire vision won't be showing up on store shelves anytime soon. "It's going to be a while before they can put it all together," he said.

The challenge for SONICblue is to find a way to integrate streaming (or downloading) into the RePlayTV boxes. Currently, RePlayTV only comes with a 56K modem, with no support for Ethernet to connect to DSL or cable modems. But those initiations can be overcome.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the industry is discovering new ways that devices can talk to each other. "We'll see it all converging: Internet radio, movies, books, pictures," said McNealy. "There will be a whole bunch of different devices with a whole bunch of different features. Some of them will make sense, and some of them will just go away."

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