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September 13, 2004

Extending PVRs into non-PVR areas

PVRBlog has a post regarding a new company in Idaho called Dedicated Devices that will create a hardware/software server that will distribute television shows, photos, music, and "oversee a home alarm system". PVRBlog responded with what was also my first reaction:

"Also, would you want to control your home alarm system via your PVR? Not me, thanks."

After thinking about, I can see the merits of a device like that.

If you consider the PVR as not just a consumer electronics product but as your centralized home server, it starts making a bit more sense. At our home, I have a couple of machines running all the time, but for the average home, this is overkill. Having a single home server always on to provide a variety of services has a lot of value as long as it is networked and can be accessed from many places. A Tivo (or other PVR) seems as good a place as any since it's always on and most likely connected to a network.

First, let's talk about PVR features like video, music, and photos. The Tivo way of distributing it is to buy more Tivos, link them all up in a home network, and add a PC to the mix to store your music and photos. From a historical and economic view, this evolution of distribution makes sense, but it's not a great design for the average user.

First, you need to pay monthly fees (or lifetime subscriptions) for each of your Tivos, regardless of whether you want all the additional features like a program guide and the ability to record. Next, you also have a lot of computer power sitting around idle, along with an increasingly expensive electricity bill. Finally, unlike the typical workplace computer that you have customized for your individual needs and that you use for all your computing tasks, your home television experience is different in that you may watch multiple televisions, and conversely, other household members might watch the same television at different times.

A powerful server and a very thin client would be a much better solution. For one thing, you can have just one computer sitting in your attic always on and then have quick booting thin clients (or eventually a chip built directly into a standard consumer electronic) that would be connected to each television. This would undoubtedly reduce your energy costs while still giving you ready access. Since everything is centralized, you'd have all your content in a single repository to make things easier to find. Your system would be cheaper to extend (assuming the thin client was inexpensive) and could grow to meet any expanded needs. In the ideal world, you could carry your identity and customization with you so that no matter which tv you are next to, you have your favorite music, your customized channel lineup, and your own recorded television.

That makes sense for PVR features, but it starts getting murky with features that aren't typically seen on your television. For instance, Myth and other PVR's will show the local weather report. This is only the beginning of other content I would like at my ready. Our household usually leaves (guess what?) another computer that is always on in our family room to serve in this capacity. There is plenty of online content that would be useful. Weather is nice, but how about phone listings, directions, movie times, and other online content to help plan your time at a moment's notice. If your household is like ours, having a ready, no boot time, access to that kind of content would be most helpful.

Murkier still is the security system and controlling appliances via X10, but there again, the ubiquitous nature of televisions spread around the house would make it somewhat valuable. A webcam located in the driveway that you could see from your television would be nice. Additionally, turning off the porch light from your bedroom is cool, but better yet as an Internet connected device, making sure you turned off the coffee maker from the airport on the way to your vacation would be reassuring as well.

Perhaps the ideal system wouldn't be a huge do-it-all system as the Dedicated Devices product may be, but having a versatile thin client that uses a standard protocol that lets other vendors develop the backend services. That would be better because you could piece together your favorite PVR, security system, music server, etc. Unfortunately, the technology isn't really there yet and there are corporate considerations like copyright issues that make it likely that some big name devices like Tivo won't play nice.

While some protocols are getting created to support this kind of inter-operability, it's still going to be a long time before there are a plethora of products to support it. In the meantime, a do-it-all approach may be the second best thing. The problem Dedicated Devices might have is that it must have "good enough" features and quality to make it competitive with each individual service, and not have a big sticker shock to prevent people from discarding their old devices.

Just as a disclaimer, I should note that I don't work for Dedicated Devices, and quite frankly, I couldn't google up their website so I have no idea what their actual product will look like.

Posted on September 13, 2004

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