Consumers Ready and Waiting for ‘e-Hubs’

Picture this: You’re sitting in your living room at home, watching a digital movie that you ordered wirelessly from your laptop computer. Your son barges in the room with some friends and pauses the flick so he can show his buddies a home movie he’s taken and stored on the family entertainment server. Undeterred, you head for the bedroom, where with the flick of a few buttons on your remote, you can access the very same digital movie your son had turned off, and pick it up in the exact spot you lost it when he barged in.

Fantasy, right? According to the Internet Home Alliance (IHA) in Monterey, Calif., the situation could be closer than you think. In a report released today, the IHA declared that a majority of consumers envision the “ideal” entertainment server as a stand-alone product that can network wirelessly to entertainment and computing devices within the home and act as the central storage device for both pre-packaged and family-created video. The research, conducted with the help of Dallas-based Parks Associates, included both quantifiable consumer survey data and a series of focus groups across diverse geographies.

The notion of home networking is nothing new; since the non-profit IHA was founded in 2001, the organization has been researching and touting the rise of the home appliances. Tony Barra, the organization’s Chief Strategy Officer, explained that this latest research effort was conducted to better understand consumer perceptions about the emerging “home entertainment server” product category and the role the PC will play in that transformation.

“There is a clear indication that consumers want to have the PC become part of their entertainment world at home,” Barra told in an exclusive interview today. “It’s not that the set-top box wont be there, or that gaming consoles wont have some role, but that the perception out there today is that consumers are expecting the PC to become the entertainment library for their homes.”

As Barra explained, this latest concept, dubbed the “E-Hub,” would enable users to automatically connect to both in-home and portable entertainment devices across their home networks, and would allow them to create a virtual Media Center through which they could access any form of applicable content using simple TV-focused user interfaces and remote controls. So far, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and vendors including Hewlett Packard , Samsung, Sony , Panasonic, Dell
and Gateway have signed aboard to make it reality.

The new IHA research report, entitled “Video Distribution,” noted that more than 67 percent of broadband consumers find the concept of an entertainment server appealing. End users surveyed found that the most compelling benefits of an entertainment server are the opportunity to have one entertainment device and realize the “one remote control” dream, the capacity to watch all available content from multiple rooms and multiple devices, and the ability to download data at will for time-shifted TV and movie watching.

“The key to unlocking the exciting potential of digital entertainment devices, including broadband-delivered entertainment, is the home network,” said Jeff Cove, vice president for alliances and business development at Panasonic. “[All of the companies involved with the Internet Home Alliance] are committed to delivering products that harness the power of in-home networks and digital media technologies.”

Barra, the IHA’s strategist, noted that research data indicated a key to the success of entertainment servers would be simplicity of the user interface. The majority of those surveyed expressed fears about complex interfaces, the possibility of software glitches, and operating system crashes. Respondents also expressed a strong desire for the option to back up and archive content, suggesting that a DVD-recording capability will be a compelling feature of the entertainment server moving forward.

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