At Home in an Unwired Wonderland

I’ve made a habit of paying attention to the goings on in the digital lifestyle arena. I’ve written several columns here covering emerging technologies and the latest gadgets, all stemming from an obsession with interactive television and the networked home. For reference, you can read the previous columns here, here, and here.

Convergence is out. It’s a tired, old ex-buzzword. Digital lifestyle is in, and it’s heating up.

We’ve been keeping an eye on four companies, each well positioned to capitalize on the digital lifestyle and to be the heart of the home network: AOL, Apple, Microsoft, and Sony. Each company brings a little something different to the table, and each is in a different stage of its strategy development.

Below I discuss several recent announcements and product introductions with significant potential impact in this space.

The PC: The Center of Home Entertainment

After what seems like years of demos, Microsoft and several hardware partners are finally shipping the tablet PC. The software giant is also poised to roll out the first Microsoft-powered PCs specifically designed to be the center of the home entertainment system, running a relatively new version of Windows XP, dubbed Media Center Edition. This version of Microsoft’s OS promises to manage your digital music, photo, and video collections and even boasts TiVo-like personal video recorder (PVR) functionality. Hewlett-Packard will be the first hardware company to ship a computer specifically designed for this purpose. An early review says it’s interesting but not quite ready for primetime.

Sony has worked itself into a very awkward position. On one hand, its very successful VAIO line of Windows-powered computers relies on Microsoft’s core OS. But even in the face of the Redmond monster pushing digital lifestyle convergence and building great features into the OS, Sony has been working on its own digital lifestyle software. The company has pushed these software features for years, including GigaPocket, its own PVR software that’s shipped on some VAIO configurations for over a year. It’ll be very interesting to see what happens between the two companies as digital lifestyle applications continue to evolve.

Rendezvous With Jaguar

The biggest development of the last year comes from Apple, and it’s happened relatively quietly. The company’s latest OS upgrade, known as Jaguar, introduced a bevy of new digital lifestyle management features. One of the coolest is Rendezvous, a new standards-based networking technology requiring no configuration. The new OS basically operates over whatever connections are available (Ethernet and Wi-Fi) and finds other Rendezvous-enabled devices. Printer manufacturers, such as Epson and HP, were among the first hardware companies to announce upcoming Rendezvous support — a natural fit. The biggest news is consumer electronics giant Philips also announced support.

“Apple and Philips share a vision for the future,” said Gerard Kleisterlee, CEO of Royal Philips Electronics in an Apple press release. Kleisterlee continued:

We both believe that consumers want devices throughout the home to talk to each other, so that, for example, the music stored in iTunes on your Mac can play through the Philips stereo system in your living room, or the photos stored in iPhoto can be displayed as a stunning slideshow on your Philips Flat TV. Rendezvous helps realize this dream. Philips is particularly pleased that Apple has adopted an open standard and architecture for Rendezvous, and we will support Rendezvous in future Philips products.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Wow. That’s cool. It’s so exciting it makes convergence cool again. Imagine a whole house full of Rendezvous-enabled devices, making it a breeze to manage all your digital entertainment assets. Gadget freaks like myself run wires all over the house, rigging together precariously configured components to make them talk to each other.

I’ve got all of this digital stuff. Why does it have to be such a pain to play music from my PC on my home stereo system? I’ve got a ReplayTV system with a cool slideshow screensaver that can use digital photos transferred from a Windows-based PC. But it has to be Windows, not Mac. Why? It’s all IP-based networking. Why can’t we all just get along? Rendezvous, with support from companies such as Philips, will fix problems like this.

Microsoft and Sony push proprietary solutions and struggle to gain control of the home network by forcing not only consumers but also third-party suppliers to use their specific technologies. Apple boldly decided to make Rendezvous open source. Innovation and a strict adherence to standards, as well as the open source movement, will help to drive adoption.

What does all this mean for digital marketers? Well, admittedly, not much. At least, not yet. But, as I’ve said in previous columns on this topic, whoever controls the home network controls the gateway through which interactive marketers will gain access to consumers.

Imagine some potential future applications. As digital distribution of entertainment assets such as movies and music continues to evolve, consumers will have to pay for things such as subscription services to MP3 sites, video on demand, and so on. An advertiser might offer to pay for a movie if a consumer fills out a survey and watches a 60-second commercial. Once all devices are seamlessly and automatically networked (and connected to the Internet), everything will become a marketing platform.

I’m sure consumers won’t mind increasingly intrusive marketing efforts — as long as we steer clear of pop-ups!

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