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Hatching the home server

May 26, 20033 mins

Whether it’s founded on a PC or a set-top box, home servers are on the way

Media gateway. Entertainment hub. Digital media tank. Call it what you will, it’s a home server.

With the explosion of digital content — much of it increasingly memory-intensive video — consumers will soon need a place to store all this stuff. And while the falling prices of DVD writers (mid-$200s) makes them an option today, the ease of calling up home movies or stored audio files from any device in the home without having to load a disk into a drive means it’s only a matter of time before the home server finds a place in your living room.

But what form will it take? There are two camps in the industry, dividing roughly along the lines you would expect: PC and consumer electronics.

In the PC camp, Microsoft is evolving its operating system to manage and distribute digital media. HP and Gateway are following, positioning their PCs as media content centers. Based on Microsoft’s Media Center XP, these media PCs are positioned to let you view pictures, video and audio in one room, the living room. But over time, these PCs will extend their reach outward. The next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, will have intelligence built in to create media distribution networks, meaning the PCs will be able to recognize and connect to non-PC devices.

The consumer electronics and set-top box companies are pushing the home server as consumer appliance. Vendors such as Sony, Pioneer and Motorola envision devices that reside in the entertainment rack, zipping content between TVs and audio players around the room. Some companies see these products evolving from personal video recorders and DVD players. Others are offering new concept devices such as Pioneer’s Digital Library, a home server with an 80G-byte hard disk, and Ethernet and wireless connectivity. Pioneer says it plans to ship the device this month.

To complicate matters, companies such as Microsoft and Sony are planting their feet in both camps. Microsoft sees the X-Box as much more than a gaming platform, and the new X-Box title MusicMixer proves it. MusicMixer lets you move all your stored digital audio files from your PC onto your X-Box. Now you can play these files, but also use the X-Box as a karaoke machine, view pictures, and even mix some video and audio files. While the application doesn’t yet serve music files to other devices, expect the next version of X-Box to do so.

Sony, primarily considered a consumer electronics company, is enabling its PC line to operate as home servers. At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, the company announced RoomLink, an Ethernet media adapter product that lets you connect Sony Vaio PCs to consumer electronic devices to play audio or video.

Whether the PC or consumer electronics vision prevails (or both), one thing is certain: These devices will not be called home servers. Look for something more consumer friendly and less technical. Something like Media Monster or the Content Cabin. Chances are you can think of something better. Send me your suggestions at I’ll put the best in a future edition of my newsletter.