Hewlett-Packard, which has developed one of the most complete programs and some of the best-designed products of any IT vendor for the digital home market, is making big changes to its approach and is already causing some waves in its channel.
Nearly every major computer vendor sells Media Center PCs, but HP has been one of the few to offer a PC with the looks and features to fit into the living as a robust home entertainment center. Its z560 and z565 Digital Entertainment Center (DEC) PCs are full-blown entertainment PCs but are the size of DVD players, and they include useful features such as bays for portable media drives and dual-TV tuners.
However, HP revealed last week that it will discontinue the line and concentrate on other products for the home.
"The thing that was very clear to us is [Media Center PC] solutions today are not that simple or easy to set up," said Ameer Karim, director of HP worldwide product marketing for consumer PC and digital entertainment products. "Now we're focused on bringing simpler, more intuitive solutions that are easy to set up, whether you're a CEDIA installer or a do-it-yourself geek."
HP is continuing to ship standard form-factor PCs running Windows XP Media Center Edition, and the Palo Alto, Calif., company is shipping its new Media Center-based TouchSmart PC, which includes a 19-inch touch screen. But the company's focus for the home is now on its new MediaSmart product line.
The first product in the line, the MediaSmart TV, began shipping last year and is in its second generation. The MediaSmart TV includes software that lets users access photos, audio files and videos stored on other devices on a home's wireless or wired network. The first generation of the MediaSmart TV was a 37-inch model, and the company is now offering 42- and 47-inch models, with 1080p as an option.
Later this year, HP and Microsoft expect to start shipping the next product in the MediaSmart line, the jointly developed MediaSmart server. The product is a combined storage device and server and is designed to be a central storage point for all digital content and allow users to access it from inside the home or over the Web. The MediaSmart products are compatible with other Windows-based devices.
In addition to positioning its MediaSmart product line as a way to make home entertainment easier to use, HP is aiming the products directly at the new Apple TV device. Both HP's and Apple's device let users pull video from a PC and access it on a PC, but HP is hoping to improve on the concept by putting the networking capability directly inside the TV.
Karim said the system also lets users access online music and video content from any source, compared with Apple's much more closed system.
"We think this is a good alternative for people looking for an option to Apple TV," he said.
Despite the changes to the product line, Karim said HP is still very committed to its home integrators and the digital integrator program it launched last year.
"We're still very passionate. We're willing to make major investments in the digital home and digital entertainment space. DEC is being discontinued for the time being, but we're re-evaluating solutions for the space," Karim said.
Yet Mike Seamons, vice president of marketing at Exceptional Innovation, a Westerville, Ohio-based home-control company partnering with HP, is apprehensive of the changes. Exceptional Innovation has worked closely with HP to offer its Life|ware home control and automation solutions on HP's Media Center PCs, and though Seamons said the partnership remains strong, the suspension of the DEC line is a big deal.
"It does leave a hole, as it was the central entertainment box that makes the Life|ware home control system come together," Seamons said. "The PC sits in the center of the system where all the television and content is aggregated. Without that product there, it will leave a void that other manufacturers will need to fill."
Seamons said his company is already in talks with other PC manufacturers to integrate their Media Center PCs with the Life|ware solution. In particular, his company is looking at Sony's new XL3 Digital Living System, which includes a Blu-ray DVD drive and a DVD library system.
Other possible candidates include the Denali, Rainier and M7 PCs from high-end system builder Niveus Media, as well as Alienware's new Hangar 18. The Alienware product is expected to start shipping this quarter and includes HDVD and built-in speaker amplification.
"It would be much better for HP to have an entire product line end-to- end, but these other companies can fill the void," Seamons said.
Seamons also takes issue at HP's use of a proprietary user interface on the MediaSmart devices, instead of an open interface such as Media Center. Having a common interface makes the learning curve easier, especially if it's based on the common Windows design, Seamons said.
He also questioned HP's decision to not include Media Center Extender capabilities in the MediaSmart TV, which would have allowed it to easily connect to Media Center PCs.