Will Intel's Viiv thrive?
When PC into CE doesn't compute
Analysis Here we go again. Another Intel Developer Forum, another attempt by the chip maker to pitch the PC as the perfect home entertainment system. This time round, its efforts have a brand-name and an unspecified but undoubtedly considerable marketing budget behind it. But will Intel's Viiv platform be any more successful than its past attempts to get the PC into the living room?
The digitisation of media is certainly an opportunity for Intel. But there are some significant barriers. Traditional PC form-factors are not well suited to living rooms, at least not as part of the kit that sits alongside or underneath the TV. Attempts to build PCs into living-room friendly cases have stumbled either because of noise, size and, often, ugliness. Their price hasn't helped, either.
Most of these factors can be solved through better industrial design and smarter construction. But there's a deeper question: is the PC suitable for this kind of role in the first place? Yes, digital media can be managed and displayed on a PC, but for playback alone and maybe even management too, you don't need anything as powerful as a typical media PC. Intel's answer is that the PC does more than display media, it can be used to create it too. But then you're back to the need for a keyboard, mouse and the kind of UI you need to sit up close to use.
Internet and email access require a keyboard too, but again are low-power apps that simply don't require high spec systems to run. No one's going to do word processing on a 2m UI.
Media Center PCs are better equipped for gaming, it's true, but crucially they cost much more than consoles, and you have to understand how to install software - you can't just slide in a disc and play the game as you would on a consumer-friendly console.
You can tell Intel appreciates these points from the way it's positioning Viiv. Having been burned before, when it has touted slimline form-factors as the future for the consumer PC, Intel this time isn't stressing the case design but the function. Indeed, it envisages a wide variety of form-factors for Viiv systems, from towers to compact computers and entirely new designs.
The problem is, that simply defines the platform too broadly. A mini-tower may have essentially the same components as a DVD player-like Media Center Edition machine, but their roles - their "usage models", as Intel likes to call them - are very different.
The Viiv initiative is different from Intel's past attempts to talk up the entertainment PC in as much as the company is now committed to spending money to market the brand and encourage a software infrastructure to grow around it. Before it's simply relied on Microsoft to push its Media Center OS, and for OEMs to design and promote their own home PC systems.
Intel's model for Viiv is Centrino, but the two programmes aren't directly comparable. Centrino's usage model is clear: unlimited mobile computing. The differentiation is the ability to work away from wires. There are different Centrino form-factors, but nothing that diverges from the classic clamshell casing. In short, it's easy to grasp what makes a Centrino notebook different from other laptops.
Viiv, on the other hand, has no clear usage model and, as we've seen, no clear form-factor. Intel talks about digital media delivery, but since Viiv PCs are as likely to be 'classic' desktops as slimline home entertainment devices, they inherently encompass a wide array of usage models: gaming, personal productivity, Internet and communications, content creation, content consumption and more. Such a broad definition will not only make it hard to convince buyers that a Viiv-based PC is different from any other PC, but to get them to understand what exactly Viiv stands for. Intel is ready to makes some suggestions, but they're all far more less clear-cut than Centrino's raison d'etre.
In short, Viiv is defined too broadly and lacks a clear differentiator. Is it a living-room system, or is it a desktop? Is it a Pentium Extreme Edition system, or is Pentium M? About the only thing you can say is that it's wired, not wireless, and it has 5.1 audio. Viiv may be slightly more tightly defined than the phrase 'personal computer', but it's certainly no more proscriptive than 'Intel inside'.
We're sure Intel's marketing will be sufficiently full-on to convince plenty of folk they need a Viiv PC rather than a regular PC, but it's questionable whether it will win the company any more business than it would have gained anyway. Viiv will simply become the default.
Intel could have saved itself a lot of effort if it had simply decided not to call the platform a PC. It could have more tightly specified the form-factor, functionality and, conversely, been less restrictive about what system software it should have.
It's ironic that, when talking about form-factor, Intel Digital Home Group general manager Don MacDonald says "it's not Intel's job to be prescriptive", yet he's quite willing to foist exact operating system and hardware specifications on Viiv manufacturers.
There's no reason at all why living room systems can't be based on Intel processors, system logic and connectivity chips. But it's not necessary to claim that because they do, they are PCs.
TiVo's boxes are built around on IBM PowerPC chips running Linux. With the right firmware the could be Macs. So they're arguably as much personal computers as an Intel-based set-top box is, but TiVo isn't wedded to the PC concept and is free to pitch its product as a CE device, something consumers understand. When consumers think of PCs, they think of beige boxes sitting on desktops, or they think of notebooks. Plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests they don't think of consumer electronics-like equipment.
But Intel, it seems, can't bear the idea that it's platform is not a PC. It just has to mandate a Microsoft operating system, make the whole thing more complex and - yes, it's true - more functionally powerful than it needs to be.
The irony is, Intel accepts it's not a strong CE player. But every time it tries to be, it starts shaking and, to calm down, has to start talking about PCs again. Its solution is to try and position the PC as a CE device, but PCs are general-purpose devices and CE kit typically address just one or two applications.
There's no reason why a general-purpose device can't be used more narrowly - think of a Windows PC being used solely for email or IM. But to be truly ready to run a wide variety of tasks, a device needs sufficient processing power to run anything from Notepad to Photoshop, along with a sufficiently complex OS to manage everything. That inherently opens it up to all the threats Windows is heir to, and makes it complicated and thus difficult for non-technical consumers to master and maintain. That's the antithesis of CE.
Intel's cart-before-the-horse solution to spend money on software to dumb Windows down to the level of CE kit - essentially to bypass all the technology Microsoft puts in to make its OS more powerful. So much effort could be saved if Intel simply realised PC does not equal CE.
Intel should pursue the CE market aggressively, and it should do so with its x86 products. The current generation of Pentium 4 and Pentium D processors may not be suitable, but its next-generation microarchitecture has some very strong benefits for CE devices. It should - obviously - pursue the PC market too. There is plenty of room in consumers' so-called digital lives for both kinds of product. ®