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Viiv to coexist with STBs

Posted: 01 Aug 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Mike Clendenin? EE Times? Intel Corp.? Viiv entertainment PC platform? set-top boxes?

As Intel Corp. grapples with the challenge of building support for content services surrounding the Viiv entertainment PC platform, it is softening its stance on the central role of Viiv in the home, acknowledging that STBs will continue to play a key part.

When Intel introduced Viiv months ago, it positioned the platform as the hub of the future digital home, a strategy aggressively advocated by Microsoft but scoffed at by the consumer electronics community, which has ruled the roost for home entertainment.

Recently, Intel said it had never seen the rise of Viiv in the home as a zero-sum game that would entail the demise of STBs running on silicon from the likes of STMicroelectronics and Broadcom Corp. "It's inevitable that the STB and the PC will coexist in the same home," said Gordon Dolfie, director of marketing for Intel's Content Services Group.

In a report on media servers that was released last June, Parks Associates provided a reality check for PC industry players who believe the computer will figure importantly in living room entertainment centers. Though slim form factors have been around since 2003, Parks estimates that only 620,000 homes have living room-based PCs, with the total projected to increase to 5.1 million in 2010. Multimedia PCs with TV tuners total about 676,000, increasing to 5.8 million in 2010.

The number of multimedia PCs without tuners, however, is much higher today, at 6.1 million, and will grow rapidly as Microsoft includes media features in all Vista-based systems. During that time, Parks also estimates that Internet Protocol-enabled STBs will make modest gains in volume.

With that in mind, Intel is talking more of a cooperation game with cable operators in the hope that IP-enabled STBs will allow users to watch premium content on PCs or mobile devices.

"What we're really talking about is how many different pipes there will be for digital entertainment content into the home, and how a consumer might easily use the content and move the content from different pipes to different screens," Dolfie said.

Months from now, the PC industry will get a taste of how interested users are in a scenario where PCs interact with STBs. AT&T began testing its Homezone concept, which uses an IP-enabled STB from 2Wire to integrate satellite TV from EchoStar, a DVR, caller ID on the TV, and Web-based video content from Movielink and Akimbo, as well as music and photo services.

Homezone is seen as a backup plan for AT&T, which is struggling to roll out IPTV on a fiber/copper backbone in an aggressive effort known as Project Lightspeed. IP-enabled STBs that can interact with PCs remain the exception rather than the norm. "Really, the IP STB has been a little bit in Europe and a little bit in Asia, but nothing in the U.S.," said Chris Day, general manager of media processing at Philips Semiconductors, whose TriMedia processor is in the 2Wire STB being used in Homezone.

Day said AT&T's introduction of bundled services that combine satellite and IP-based video may be slow to catch on but should eventually take hold, prompting other operators to consider the introduction of IP STBs that would interact with a home network.

"Will there be massive volumes next year? Probably not. But in two or three years? I think so," he said.

Intel and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) made a hard push for entertainment PCs and home networking at the recent Computex, the Taiwan trade show where the hype of CES prototypes runs the gauntlet of more-skeptical system designers looking to place bets on winning platforms.

Not surprisingly, Intel's Viiv is taking the lead. The chipmaker showcased a slew of systems from Taiwan OEMs based on its Core Duo platform, which allows for much slimmer CE form factors than did the hotter-running, bulkier Pentium D and Pentium Extreme Edition systems that came out in the first half of 2006. AMD is trailing, still showing systems that look more like traditional desktops. That is expected to change in the second half, when OEMs deliver slimmer systems based on AMD's recently announced line of energy-efficient Athlon 64 X2 dual-core processors for small form factors.

Intel also made incremental advances on the peripherals front, with BenQ Corp. taking the wraps off a Viiv-certified digital media adapter and Buffalo introducing a media adapter based on a Philips reference design rolled out during CES. Intel also displayed a Viiv-compliant personal media player from Creative Technology, which looks to be the first portable device for the Viiv ecosystem.

Intel is making the Viiv 1.5 software stack available to OEMs. It was expected to ship with all Viiv-compliant peripheral devices in the second half and will slowly migrate into new PC systems based on OEM upgrade schedules.

As the companies build up the platforms, there is still more legwork to do, both among consumers and among OEMs. In general, Taiwan's OEMs are not bowled over by the Viiv technology, but are eager for the marketing dollars associated with it. One motherboard maker said Intel has $300 million to $400 million to spend this year on Viiv, which compensates for the "underwhelming" availability of content linked to the platform.

AMD, which is stressing the open nature of its approach, is getting more of a neutral response from the island's OEM executives, who expect Viiv to be dominant around this time next year.

"There is no technology advantage of one over the other. It's the system and how well either company can make all the disparate parts work together, and it is the marketing budget because the consumer has to be taught to trust the logo," said Jon Peddie, founder of Jon Peddie Research.

Answering the critics
Intel's Dolfie said users can expect some of Intel's content partners, such as AOL and Clickstar, to roll out services in the second half. He is also mindful that there are a lot of critics out there who are unimpressed with what the chipmaker has done so far in corralling A-list content and marrying it to the Viiv platform concept.

"Anytime you are talking about educating people about a new way to do things, it takes quite a bit of effort and quite a bit of time, and I don't think we are under any illusions that we have got that part of the job done," he said. "We have really just started the education process."

- Mike Clendenin
EE Times




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