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An Alternative Solution to the Problem Media Center PCs are Trying to Solve

I was chatting with a friend of mine who was trying to get her Tivo to play nicely with all of the music she bought on iTunes. After a number of abortive attempts, we chose to spend our time solving other problems. In thinking about what it will really take to integrate the various home media devices that exist today and will exist in the near future, perhaps trying to ship a PC with an end-all-be-all operating system is not the answer.

One of the coolest geek products that I have ever seen is the Harmony remote control. Intrigue Technologies, the maker of the Harmony remote, was acquired by Logitech. After several awful user experiences with so-called “universal remotes”, I stumbled on the Harmony. The reason I think the Harmony is instructive is that it inverted the paradigm of most universal remotes at the time. Most “universal” products try to ship with out-of-the-box support for many device without any specific knowledge of the customer environment. The Harmony takes a different approach in that the end user tells the device the components that make up “the network” and the device configures itself to work in the specified environment.

I think this approach could be really useful to those vendors out there hawking media center PCs. Most of the products I have seen today are trying to be the end-all-be-all devices that will handle everything out of the box. The problem is that it is impossible to account for all of the vagaries of consumer devices, including incompatible standards implementations, new data formats, and changes in the security mechanisms used to protect content. Instead of trying to pack everything into these Media Center PCs, why not ship dumber boxes that a user can configure via a Web interface? Instead of pushing the burden of configuration out to end users, why not centralize the effort required to figure out how a given Linksys wireless router, home theater system, and PC need to be configured to talk to each other?

Obviously, there are a host of technical concerns associated with this approach, but I am not convinced that pursuing the current approach will be any more fruitful.

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