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IPTV/VoD: The tortoise and the hare

How complacency is stunting the industry

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This leap of getting content from the PC to a normal TV is colloquially called the "air gap" in industry vernacular. It's an obvious and predictable transition, but a very hard one to make. The problem is generally with the location of their broadband router, which is typically in the study, hall, or in a room that is nowhere near the TV. You can't use Ethernet cabling because it's too messy, you can't use coaxial or copper cabling as drilling holes in walls is too time-consuming, and you can't use wireless as it's too unreliable for video.

The answer to home networking for video is powerline communication (PLC) or Ethernet over home electric cabling, which needs no install and can provide up to 200Mbps IP connectivity in any power socket in the home. Companies like Devolo (HomePlug), Corinex (DS2), and Netgem now have their products in high street stores and consumers are slowly realising their usefulness. The way to get your iPod to play on your car stereo when you only have an old cassette player is similar – buy an FM broadcasting device for the headphone socket and tune into the signal on the car radio.

At where we are now, consumers have a massive collection of electronic hardware doing a million different tasks. They are flooded with gadgetry that fills their shelves and doesn't quite seem to do everything they want. A typically forward-thinking home has an HDready plasma/LCD TV, a digital TV set-top box (often with PVR or recording capability, like Sky+ or Freeview Playback), a DVD player and/or recorder, a games console (e.g. Xbox 360), three to four PCs and, increasingly, a network media player such as Apple's iTV or D-Link's streamer ranger. It's getting chaotic. The proliferation of these devices is direct evidence that the electronics industry sees the demand for digital media in the home.

This pile of silver boxes is the bane of most girlfriends' or wifes' lives, and is leading to a wave of consolidation. If Sky added Ethernet connectivity to its HD set-top boxes that allowed access to digital content over the local home network, that is to say doubled as a network media player, its dominance would be complete.

The most frequent question among subscribers surveyed is why they can't use the Sky+ box to stream the music, TV, and movies they've downloaded onto their PCs from the internet onto their living room TV. Nobody wants the hassle of ripping DVDs, re-encoding video files or burning their own discs.

Setting up a basic video on-demand network at home isn't easy, and it's not made any easier by the fact that there aren't many places to go for help, or any companies that provide engineers that will come to your home to do the wiring for you.

Ironically, these companies don't exist as the perception is that the market is not there to justify their launch. Setting up that network is also very costly. At the least, a pack of PLC adaptors are needed, as is an IP device to show the media on the plasma TV screen (i.e. a set-top box or media player).

The first incarnation of the home video network was arguably the first generation Xbox that could be "mod-chipped" to allow a third party program called the "Xbox Media Centre" to run on it instead of the normal Xbox operating systems.

Computer nerds immediately realised that it was simply a computer with hard drive embedded into it; hence it could run Linux, read video files from a disc in its DVD drive, and stream out TV through its Ethernet connection. Mod your Xbox, add the Media Centre software, and the movies you downloaded would play on your normal TV.

The next-generation Xbox 360 took advantage of this and added the capability to behave as a media player and stream files from shared network folders on PCs built-in from the beginning. The catch was that the only material that could be streamed had to be encoded using the Windows Media system. Each proprietary media player product that has been brought out has its own idiosyncrasies that affect its reliability and attractiveness.

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