Why have media extenders failed to take off?

Why have media extenders failed to tke off?“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.

NeurosIn 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?

last100 is edited by Steve O'Hear. Aside from founding last100, Steve is co-founder and CEO of Beepl and a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including TechCrunch, The Guardian, ZDNet, ReadWriteWeb and Macworld, and also wrote and directed the Silicon Valley documentary, In Search of the Valley. See his full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

4 Responses to “Why have media extenders failed to take off?”

  1. G says:

    Steve – People have been doing reference implementations in this space for a few years now. One worthy of mention is called Digitl Transmission Content Protection (DTCP-IP) – and yes it has lagged a bit in adoption. But recent agreement by Cable Labs and Intel could be catalysts for converged home networks. Intel has been a big promoter of the DTCP-IP. Although not explictly mentioned, DTCP-IP is part of the Open Cable Applications Platform (OCAP) Home Newtworking extensions.

    Another one is the the Secure Video Processor being promoted by the Cable Industry – where substantial initiatives have been underway for a while – but the complexity of that initiative could stall things for a while.

    Here are some references:

    Press – Intel / Cable Labs Agreements

  2. Steve O'Hear (editor) says:


    Thanks for this info. I’ll look into it some more.

  3. David Mackey says:

    I don’t have a media extender, but I do have an S-Video cable to connect to my TV with. My question is, why the big bulky media extenders? How about a little box that connects to my S-Video and streams the content wirelessly to another little S-Video box on the TV? Seems like everyone is over-complicating the matter and putting restrictions on what can and can’t be streamed, when I can show anything I want just by connecting an S-Video.

  4. Peter Antypas says:

    I used to manufacture a device called the JoyPort in ’03 (www.joyfaktory.com). Although the device could stream ripped DVDs (decrypted) from a PC to TV, that feature was never fully “advertised” because it was (and still is) illegal. The market didn’t grow as much as I predicted at the time, which is why I abandoned the effort.

    For David Mackey: There are two issues with streaming analog signal:

    a) The quality (obviously)
    b) “Push” vs “Pull”. You will need to control your PC from your living room / entertainment center since the TV is just a passive monitor in this case. That’s inconvenient and kludgy … definitely not appealing to the majority of consumers.

    Generally speaking, consumers *still* don’t accept the PC as part of the living room. Media streamers fill that gap by scoring better on the WAF test.

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