“PC-to-TV”-type devices, often referred to as media extenders, have been around for a number of years, and yet have failed to reach anything like mass adoption. The reason, argues Tim Lee over at TechDirt, is that unlike the “open” MP3 format, which in the early 90s acted as the catylst for a burgeoning digital audio player market, there hasn’t been an equivalent standard for streaming content from a PC to the television.
I think the big difference is that the lack of DRM on CDs allowed the industry to standardize on the open MP3 format, despite the music industry’s best efforts to shut down the makers of the first MP3 players. Once the courts confirmed that CD ripping was legal, it created a thriving ecosystem of software and hardware around the MP3 format, and it made it easier for startup firms like iRiver to jump into the market quickly and produce innovative new products. On the other hand, because DVDs are encumbered with DRM, firms wanting to make digital video devices have to kowtow to Hollywood to get permission to make devices that can play their content—even if the user has already paid for it. Getting Hollywood’s permission requires the sort of endless negotiation and bureaucracy that is fatal to a high-tech startup.
Lee then gives the example of the original XBox “games console”, which has been hacked beyond all recognition to bypass the limits Microsoft placed on the device’s original media extender capabilities, so that it supports almost any video and audio format.
While I don’t quite follow Lee’s first example, since lots of software exists for ripping a DVD to a user’s computer (although such functionality is notably missing from iTunes), it’s certainly true that DRM and the need to pander to Hollywood has held back the adoption of video downloads, and therefore media extenders. And, perhaps as a result, too many hardware offerings are “closed” in the sense that users are stuck with the audio and video formats, and Internet services, which are supported “right out of the box”.
The AppleTV is one of the worse culprits in this manor, which is why it’s also one of the most “hacked”. Users have been clever enough to add support for the popular DivX format for example, and last week we reported that Jaman has just released an unsupported “hack” to get its movie download service to work with the device. By locking down the AppleTV and controlling the distribution channel, Apple appeases the wishes of Hollywood and also ensures that that the only copy-protected content to playback on the AppleTV is content bought from the company’s iTunes Store.
In contrast, Neuros has open-sourced the firmware for it’s Neuros OSD media-center, meaning that anybody is free to write add-ons that extend the device’s functionality. DivX is also working on creating a more open media extender platform.
There are other factors at play which might explain the lackluster sales of media extenders. Clunky User Interfaces is one of them, something which Microsoft’s newly announced Entenders for Windows Media Center platform has improved on; along with pricing, which still has a way to go.
Historically, there has also been a tendency for hardware companies to over promise and under deliver on the feasibility of streaming video over a local wireless network. Lots of media extenders that I looked at a few years ago claimed to be capable of streaming DivX over a WiFi b/g network, but none could reliably deliver. With the newest generation of wireless networks this should no longer be a problem.
What’s your experience of media extenders? What will it take for PC to TV devices to reach mass market sales? Or are they destined to stay an “early adopter” product for more years to come?