Tweaking the Digital Hub

Developers got the annual pep talk about convergence at this week's WinHEC, with an emphasis on serving up digital video. Storage Supersite Editor David Morgenstern asks if this is the future of the consumer PC.

Captains of the computer industry have talked up the convergence of computers and digital media, so it was natural that the theme surface at this weeks WinHEC (Windows Hardware Engineering Conference) in New Orleans. But while the terminology sounded familiar, its expression at WinHEC showed signs of strain.

During his keynote address, Jen-Hsun Huang, cofounder, president and CEO of nVidia, discussed the PC as a digital hub and demonstrated a Microsoft Windows XP Media Center system simultaneously playing a DVD title, receiving live video and feeding three more video streams to other devices, including a Mira Smart Display.

"(The PC) is the most likely device where you will have multi-terabyte disk drives with content flowing in and out," Huang said. "Native input devices play a very important role in all digital media."

The PC will stream digital video, interactive games and other content over a home network to various devices. In the current Microsoft iteration of convergence, the PC takes on the attributes of a content server. Users are familiar with the PC and its interface, enabling its acceptance in this new role. According to Huang, the video serving power would be the key to prevent the PC from becoming a commodity. And just as important to the vendors of the Windows platform, this might keep prices up (or at least stem the erosion).

To my ears, this is a much different concept of convergence or the "digital hub" than weve heard in the past.

In 2001, both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs made big deals over convergence. Gates stressed the role of Windows XP at the time. And while Jobs may have popularized the term "digital hub," its now morphed into Digital Life (iLife), or a digital lifestyle.

However, these visions placed the PC (or Mac) in the middle of a maze of digital-content peripherals, some for productivity (such as PDAs and cell phones) and a long list of others for capturing and delivering rich creative content. Although the PC can serve or play data, it is more importantly the one component that holds enough power to create and edit this personal content. Certainly, this fact has been key to Apple Computers strategy.

At the same time, these peripheral devices have become increasingly powerful in their own right. For example, the Mira is an intelligent display, and we now see technology usually regarded as part of the computers graphics system move to the display itself.

In the storage arena, Apples iPod combines a FireWire-based hard drive and a encoder/decoder. The same will hold true for other "dumb" consumer components, such as digital video recorders. In addition, we already have an intelligent storage architecture: network-attached storage.

Meanwhile, consumers appear to have little difficulty dealing with well-designed digital peripherals for audio, photography and video. Digital video recorders have yet to take off, but thats another story. Why is it impossible to believe they would have more difficulty with a consumer-styled NAS?

So will consumers want their PCs to perform double-duty as their digital hub (a k a server) or as a "real" PC? I bet on the latter.

David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.