The explosive adoption of broadband connectivity and home-networking technologies by consumers has laid the groundwork for new killer applications centered on digital media. Specifically, consumers are looking for elegant ways to store, secure and share their collections of music and video. Until recently, the home PC pretty much did the trick. However, many users are finding their hard-disk drives (HDDs) rapidly running out of space and are seeking a better solution than simply upgrading to bigger and bigger drives.
There are competing visions of what media servers (sometimes called home media gateways) are supposed to do. For one large group of suppliers, media servers are glorified HDDs with network connectivity and a media-savvy software suite. For another group, media gateways are glorified PCs for the living room that will ultimately be the hub of home entertainment.
The "HDD as media gateway" products are best described as media appliances since they include high-performance microprocessors and run some sort of an operating system (usually Linux). Among products gaining early traction are Ximeta's NetDisk and Mirra's Personal Server. The latter, for example, comes in 80-, 120- and 250-Gbyte versions ranging in price from $399 to $749. Ximeta has similar products, with its 160-Gbyte version priced at $250. Further along the evolutionary path are personal video recorders (PVRs), such as TiVo, with even richer media-processing features.
At the other end of the spectrum are media center PCs running Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004. These systems, marketed for the living room, provide an all-in-one PC, TV, DVD, PVR, MP3 player and home stereo with FM tuner.
The vision of the media center PC as a central point of control and storage for home entertainment is not terribly realistic. Instead, the future will be one of multiple devices with local storage that are capable of being networked so as to share content with one another. After all, consumers tend to buy one piece of equipment at a time rather than perform "green field" entertainment center upgrades. To that end, media server appliances that provide content storage, security and sharing features will be far more ubiquitous in living rooms.
Jeremey Donovan (email@example.com) is chief analyst at Gartner Dataquest.