Digital Home Limbo

tivo series2 dt dvrWe’re having an internal discussion that would be fun to get reader feedback on. Early this morning Om Malik posted a story on how Linux may/is/will be the winner in the “Digital Home” since it’s embedded in many of the popular connected devices and set-top boxes we use on a regular basis. I have no argument there. But then he makes a rather bizarre statement related to ABI Research’s recent study:

ABI says that the digital media server market is made up of four main categories: PCs, set-top boxes, consumer electronics devices such as gaming consoles or PVRs, and Network Attached Storage (NAS) hardware. “Linux as embedded OS should take up a substantial part of the set-top box and CE market, but not the PC,” says Michael Wolf, principal analyst with ABI and author of the study. Who wants their PC to be their media center? Okay, at least not us. The logic is simple – the other two players – Apple and Microsoft will have their own proprietary systems. Apple will not share them with anyone else, of course! Microsoft would as long as you play ball with their DRM system or some other lock-in. (And they are not to be taken lightly.)

Huh? I’m confused. Anyways, I ran the statement by David Walker, a staff writer here at eHomeUpgrade, to see what his thoughts were. David responded with:

I think he may be right. Linux – as it stands now – is the dominant OS in set-top boxes and CE boxes (like TiVo). I’m not sure it will ever dominate in the PC market, no matter how good the distros get. Part of the problem – to me anyhow – is that Linux has so many distros to sort through. Mac has one OS. Microsoft, essentially, has one desktop OS (although Vista with it’s 50 versions may complicate matters).

However, David was also perplexed over Om’s statement: “Who wants their PC to be their media center? Okay, at least not us.” So, was Om knocking the Media Center PC concept in general? Neither of us could tell.

Anyways, I had a surprising revelation when responding to David’s comment that there are too many Linux distros to dominate. Here’s what I came back with:

It doesn’t matter how many there are… all that matters is that they have the ability to run popular Media Center apps like MythTV, Freevo, or SageTV for example. The real issue in my opinion is lack of support for HD discs, DRM playback [which isn't entirely a bad thing], and CableCARD. Other than that, Linux is golden. Wouldn’t it be a cool if a real winner in the Media Center app space came out on the Linux platform that was just as good or better than MCE that could easily be installed on *any* Linux distro? I think that’s more powerful than being stuck to one vendor’s OS.

What are your thoughts? Is the Media Center PC concept a dead fish being eaten away by “smart” networked devices, or will one vendor (i.e. Apple or Microsoft) come out on top and eventually rule the Digital Home space?

Filed in: Industry Buzz

  • Andrew McLaughlin

    Is it Linux we’re talking about, or an open source application? You don’t have to look any further than the Xbox Media Center project to find a grand slam case study for a kick ass open source media center device/application. Sure it lacks HD playback support (it will upscale though) and digital tuner support, but on the whole, I’ve yet to run across someone who has tried XBMC and didn’t LOVE it. We can debate the concept of a PC, but I’d argue that XBMC isn’t a PC; rather, it’s a custom media center device (that just happens to have all the components to make a PC). :-)

    My personal belief is that there is a common middleware standard lacking to connect devices. UPnP isn’t the answer; and device manufactures, software developers don’t have an interest in making a true plug and play network. I can envision a day when all networked devices connect (wired or wirelessly) interface with some master control center to enable true automation. Lights, garage doors, TV’s, DVD’s, Home Theater, air conditioning/heat… all of it.

    Someone is going to figure it out, and it’s not going to be any of the big players. Maybe its Crestron or Harmony that comes up with uniform interface for all of this stuff.

    But….. my money is on Apple. They control the their own destiny and could easily roll out a solution that integrated their .Mac iPhone, with iChat, VoiPod ;-), unified messaging and voicemail combined with Airport Extreme .11n with full HD media/audio streaming and content management integration with iTunes…..

    The benefit of a Linux solution or an Apple solution is that there is a single entity (the open source community for Linux, Steve Jobs for Apple) that controls the software. Apple brings the OEM capabilities that the open source community cannot. Linux users are dependant on a device being produced that can be tweaked.

    I suppose someone could take a closed approach to the whole Linux as a platform solution, but it kind of defeats the intent; and who are we kidding, there is a multi-billion global market at stake here that no one is going to give away.


  • Alexander Grundner

    Interesting. One problem I see if Apple (or Microsoft or Intel for that matter) comes up with a “unified” standard is that they’ll keep it to themselves — translation: lock-in. In the grander scheme, this would be a bad thing leading to redundant, non-interoperable technologies. It would probably be best for a standards group, like the DLNA, to come up with the solution you suggest.

  • CharlyD

    After a quick perusal of the XBMC site, I don’t see any significant functionality beyond what is possible with the stock Media Center Extender (a standard feature of XBox 360)capabilities. And, it requires modding of your XBox. This is definitely not a mainstream option.

    When Vista is finally released, it will be very easy for a consumer with a home network (wired or wireless) to distribute digital music, video (including HD) and images around their home by simply adding XBoxes wherever they wish to access content. A Media Center Extender (MCX)module will also be available that can be incorporated into any networked CE device that provides similar capabilities (

    If the user wishes to add home control to the MCE interface, there are companies like Exceptional Innovation ( that would be glad to help. A single, intuitive UI for accessing all your digital content and controlling your garage door from anywhere, without requiring a system integrator/crestron programmer, what could be better?

    With the XBox or MCX equipped devices, there is no need for a PC at your entertainment system. The noisy, ugly box can be sitting anywhere on your network.

    I haven’t seen much action from the CE industry to respond to this. Intel with their NMPR (Networked Media Product Requirements) has outlined a standard for networked CE devices to play nice with their VIIV PC’s. I have no idea how much traction this standard is finding in the CE world. There is also DLNA and HANA initiatives, but, once again, I haven’t seen CE vendors proudly announcing their commitment to these standards.

  • Alexander Grundner

    I think the key word, CharlyD, is “when”. XBMC has been around for two years already and has proven itself as a worthy proof of concept. In that time frame, have you seen any other extender-type of device come close to what XBMC has been capable of doing? However, it is nice to see that the Vista Extender is not holding back on functionality for its Xbox 360 implementation (demo).

    CharlyD said: After a quick perusal of the XBMC site, I don’t see any significant functionality beyond what is possible with the stock Media Center Extender (a standard feature of XBox 360)capabilities. And, it requires modding of your XBox. This is definitely not a mainstream option.

    Well I guess you didn’t make it to the XBMC Project Info page. Here’s an extended excerpt:

    XboxMediaCenter 1.1.0 point release source code supports the following:

    Supported hardware platforms and Xbox options:
    - Compatible with modded retail Xbox, Debug/Development-Xbox and DreamX
    - Fully control XboxMediaCenter and its features via a Xbox™ IR DVD-Remote
    - Fully control XboxMediaCenter and its features via Xbox™ game controller

    Supported output media formats and devices:
    - TV-output: 50hz/60Hz NTSC-M/J (America/Asia) and PAL (Europe/Africa)
    - RCA, SCART, RF Coaxial, S-video, Component/RGB adapters available
    - Widescreen (16:9) and normal-TV (4:3) aspect ratio video output support
    - NTSC playback on PAL Xbox/TV and PAL playback on NTSC Xbox/TV*
    - HDTV support (multiple resolutions 480p/720p/1080i and progressive scan)*
    - VGA-output is also possible via third-party adapters or VGA-hacked BIOS
    - LCD-display output support to view status and control XBMC with TV OFF*
    - Analog audio-out (stereo/mono) via phono (RCA) connection or scart-adapter
    - Digital audio-out (mono/stereo/surround) S/PDIF optical (adapter required)

    Supported input media formats and devices:
    - Read files directly from a CD, VCD or DVD media in the Xbox’s DVD-ROM drive**
    (Support CD/DVD formats: ISO 9660 – Mode1/2/XA, UDF 1.02 and XDVDFS/CDX)
    (DVD-ROM playback is on-the-fly only** (no option yet to auto-cache to HDD first)
    - Play files directly from Xbox built-in hard drive (copy first from DVD** or network)****
    - Stream media files from a computer over a local network via XNS*, XBMSP or SMB,
    (including all NAS, Network Attached Storage devices that support SAMBA/SMB).
    - XBMC XBMSP-client code updated to support “Auto-Discovery of XBMSP servers”
    - Stream supported media files from the internet (if stream format is supported too)*
    - iTunes Music Shares via DAAP (network stream from Apple iTunes on Mac or PC)*****
    - Xbox Memory Cards (note that only FAT-X formated memory cards is supported)****
    - USB Mass Storage Devices (USB-HDD’s/memory) with FAT-X file-system****

    Supported file/container formats:
    - Audio-CD (CDDA) playback for normal audio CD’s
    - VCD and SVCD (Video CD) (SVCD/VCD menu’s are not supported yet)
    - DVD-video directly from Xbox DVD-ROM (no DVD-menu’s support yet)*
    - MPEG, MPG, M2V formats (inc. VCD’s .dat and .bin and DVD’s .vob)
    - MPEG-4, MP4 (MPEG-4 video) (including DivX video containers)
    - RIFF AVI (AVI 1.0) container
    - OpenDML AVI (AVI 2.0) container*
    - BivX (AVI with several audio streams) container
    - Microsoft ASF/ASX/WMV/WMA containers *****
    - QuickTime QT/MOV containers (inc. those with raw audio) *****
    - Theora Video (VP3) format
    - Nullsoft Steaming Video (NSV) containers*
    - Nullsoft Steaming Audio (NSA) containers
    - MPA, MP2, MP3 and WAV containers
    - AAC, M4A, MP4 (MPEG-4 audio) unprotected containers *****
    - Raw .AC3 and .DTS audio files, plus DTS with WAV-header*
    - RealMedia (Real Video/Audio) RM/RAM/RA/RV/RMVB containers
    - OGG and OGM containers
    - Matroska (матрёшка) MKV containers
    - VIVO (VIV) containers
    - PVA containers
    - NuppelVideo containers
    - FLI and FLC containers
    - Tracker Mods (18 formats supported) audio
    - M3U, PLS and STRM* audio/video playlists

    Supported video/audio codecs and picture formats:
    - MPEG-4 ASP: DivX;-) 3.11, OpenDivX 4.0, DivX 5.x (Pro), and XviD 1.0.x video
    - MPEG-4 AVC – Advanced Video Coding (H.264): Nero Digital AVC video codec
    - Windows Media Video v7, v8 and v9 (MSMpeg4/WMV v1, v2 & v3) (WMV9 via DLL’s)
    - RealVideo: 1.0, 2.0 (RealPlayer G2), 3.0 (RealPlayer 8) and 4.0 (RealPlayer 9)
    - RealAudio codecs: 1.0 (14.4), 2.0 (28.8), SIPRO, COOK, DNET and ATRAC3
    - QuickTime 5.0, 6.0, 6.3 video and audio codecs (QDMC / QDM2) (via QT DLL’s)*
    - 3ivx D4 / 3vi1 MPEG-4 video (inc. MSZH/ZLIB Compressed-Header containers)*
    - Sorenson v1/v3 (SVQ1/SVQ3) QuickTime video
    - Apple Graphics (SMC) video
    - Theora Video (VP3) video
    - On2 Technologies VP4 (VP4.0), VP5 (VP5.0), and VP6 (VP6.2) (all via On2 DLL’s)*
    - On2 Technologies VP3 (VP3.0 and VP3.2) video
    - Intel Indeo 3.1/3.2 (Indeo3)
    - NuppelVideo (NUV)
    - VIVO 1.0 and 2.0 (VIV)
    - ITU H.261 video
    - Creative Labs YUV (CYUV) video
    - Supermac Cinepak (CVID) video
    - ASUS V1 (ASV1) and ASUS V2 (ASV2) video
    - Autodesk FLI and FLC Animation
    - WAV and PCM audio format
    - MPEG-audio layer 1, 2, and 3 (MP1, MP2 and MP3)
    - OGG (Ogg Vorbis audio codec)
    - WMA – Windows Media Audio v1 and v2 (WMA1/2 / DivX Audio v1/v2)
    - WMA – Windows Media Audio v9 (WMA9) (via WMA9 DLL’s)
    - AC3 (Dolby Digital) 2.0, 5.1 and 7.1 audio in video AC3 pass-through (S/PDIF-out)
    - AC3 (Dolby Digital) 2.0 and 5.1 audio in video software decoded to stereo analog-out
    - DTS (Digital Theater Sound) 48Khz audio in DVD-Video (DTS digital pass-through)
    - DTS (DTS and DTS-WAV) 44.1Khz/48Khz audio in DVD-Video (software decoded)*
    - AAC – Advanced Audio Coding (Profiles: HE, Main, LC, LTP & LD, + ER)
    - M4A and MP4 (MPEG-4 Audio) (including Nero Digital MP4) *****
    - FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) audio
    - BMP picture/image
    - JPG/JPEG picture/image
    - GIF picture/image
    - PNG picture/image
    - TIF/TIFF picture/image
    - TGA picture/image
    - PCX picture/image
    - ICO picture/image
    - SID (Commodore 64 tunes) audio
    - Tracker Mod’s audio, see list bellow:

    Features available for video playback:
    - Full-screen playback display of all supported video formats/containers via a TV
    - Auto PAL50/PAL60-switching support and auto 4:3/16:9-switching support
    - Adjust Framerate (23.98< ->25fps), another NTSC < => PAL workaround solution*
    - SQL database with view by file/genre/actor/year/title and sort by year/name/rating
    - Selectable options from OSD (On Screen Display) Control Panel during playback
    - FF/RWD seeking and PAUSE in AVI/OGM/MKV/MPEG/MPG media
    - MPlayer seeking (2%/10% jumping) backward and forward
    - Video-Autorun, auto-plays VCD/SVCD/DVD/CD’s with video file(s) upon insert
    - DVD-video playback* (only IFO/VOB and CSS decode. No menu support yet***)
    - Play supported video files directly from BIN, IMG, NRG and ISO CD/DVD-images*
    - Subtitle support (MicroDVD, srt, smi, vplayer, rt, ssa, aqt, sub, jss, mpl & VobSub)
    - International-language fonts for subtitles (via TTF-Fonts, configurable in UI-Settings)*
    - Bi-directional (Right to left) subtitle support (flip subs for Hebrew, etc. languages)
    - Switch between multiple subtitles in DVD-video, AVI and OGM, (but not in MKV yet)
    - Video Calibration: Adjust for TV overscan compensation and edit subtitle positioning
    - Play internet files/streams of HTTP and MMS (Microsoft Media Streaming Protocol)*
    - Play Nullsoft Steaming Video (NSV) internet files/streams (a.k.a. NTV – Nullsoft TV)*
    - Play QuickTime internet files and streams over HTTP (Hyper-Text-Transfer-Protocol)*
    - Streaming video from a TiVo over network (requires hacked TiVo running ccXStream)*
    - Streaming video from a ReplayTV (4500, 5000 or 5500 series) DVR box over network*
    - IMDb information (The Internet Movie Database) lookup for movie info and thumbnails
    - Extract IMDb URL and info from a .nfo file (if selected from under My Videos)
    - Optional media file and/or folder thumbnails for easy localization
    - Smart stacking for multi-file videos option, (show/play files with 90% name similarity)
    - Switch between multiple audio-streams/tracks in DVD, AVI and OGM (not MKV yet)
    - Video bookmarking via OSD (so can resume a movie later, even after reboot)
    - Different Post-Processing filters for better video quality*
    - GPU YV12 to RGB converter for movie playback (greatly reduces CPU load)*
    - Brightness/Contrast/Gamma controls (restores to default after after each video)
    - Flicker-filter (optional video flicker-filter with five levels, disabled by default)
    - Soften-filter (optional filter to decrease video sharpness and thus artifacts)
    - De-interlace filter (for interlaced video) implementation option
    - Multiple zoom/stretch options: Zoom, Stretch 4×3 or 14×9 or 16×9, Original Size, Custom
    - Screenshot capture function (including video overlay support and OSD)
    - AC3 (Dolby Digital) 2.0, 5.1 and 7.1 audio in video AC3 pass-through (S/PDIF-out)
    - AC3 (Dolby Digital) 2.0 and 5.1 audio in video software decoded to stereo analog-out
    - DTS (Digital Theater Sound) 48Khz audio in DVD-Video (DTS digital pass-through)
    - DTS (DTS and DTS-WAV) 44.1Khz/48Khz audio in DVD-Video (software decoded)*
    - Option to output mono or stereo to all speakers (for 5.1 surround speakers)

    Features available for audio playback/backup:
    - Playback of all supported audio formats via a TV and/or external audio receiver
    - AudioCD-Ripper, backup CDDA’s to HDD in WAV, OGG or MP3 (LAME) format*
    - Karaoke CDG-file support for music files (enable *.cdg via Xaraoke Visualization)*
    - SQL database with view music by Top100/Albums/Tracks/Artists/Filenames
    or Recent Albums and also option to sort by Track/Filename/Date or Size
    - CDDB lookup support when playing/ripping Audio-CD’s (done via*
    - Thumbnail and album information lookup for MP3′s (via AMG/*
    - Audio CUE sheets (.cue) support (works with all XBMC supported audio codecs)
    - Audio-Autorun, auto-plays CDDA and music DVD/CD’s with audio file(s) upon insert
    - Play internet files/streams of HTTP and MMS (Microsoft Media Streaming Protocol)*
    - Play soundtracks ripped by/in Xbox dashboard (add path “soundtrack://” to XML)
    - Play supported audio files directly from BIN, IMG, NRG and ISO CD/DVD-images
    - Reads ID3v1/ID3v2 tags from MP3′s, also tags from OGG, FLAC and WMA
    - Reads information tags from M4A, MP4 and AAC (MPEG-4 Audio) audio-files*
    - Display embedded Thumbs from info-tags in WMA, M4A, MP4, AAC audio-files
    - M3U and PLS audio playlists (inc. create/save M3U audio playlists)
    - SHOUTcast Internet Radio (MP3 .pls M3U playlists) playback support
    - Local/native SHOUTcast recording (to MP3) onto the Xbox hard drive
    - Audio Visualizations API (and several visual generators and spectrum analysers)
    - FF/RWD seeking and PAUSE during audio playback/visualization*
    - Optional media file and/or folder thumbnails for easy localization
    - Option to output mono or stereo to all speakers (for 5.1 surround speakers)

    Features available for picture/image viewing:
    - Full-screen display of all supported picture and image formats via a TV
    - Picture slideshow, including option for adding recursive to slideshows
    - Picture thumbnails (automatically generated on demand)
    - Optional folder thumbnails for easy localization
    - View pictures directly from BIN, IMG, NRG and ISO CD/DVD-images
    - Picture Zooming, rotate, move around, info, pause, next/previous picture
    - Kodak PictureCD compatible* (auto-launches slideshow on CD insert)**
    - Auto-launches any picture CD’s on insert if images in root directory

    Other and generic Graphical User Interface (GUI) features:
    - Controllable via either Xbox™ DVD Remote or Xbox™ controller/game-pad
    - Controllable via USB-(HID)-Mouse (Left/Right/Middle buttons and Wheel supported)*
    - Flexible XML based skinning engine with GUI skin switching (many skins available)
    - View file media listing By List, By Small Icons or By Large Icons option
    - Virtual-Keyboard for manual IMDb searches and settings configurations
    - Dashboard replacement mode (launch other applications and/or games)
    - Show original XBE (games and applications) icons under “My Programs”
    - Flatten Directory Hierarchy setting option for use under “My Programs”
    - Show only default.xbe setting option for use under “My Programs”
    - “My Files” file-manager, move/copy/delete local and copy from network
    - “My Weather” weather forecast module (done via The Weather Channel)
    - Screensavers (dim, black-screen or Matrix trails) on configurable timer in GUI
    - RSS feed in main meny (can manually disable or change feed in home.xml)
    - Python Script Interpreter Engine (execute Python scripts from within XBMC)
    - Shutdown-timer, to shutdown XBMC when idle, on configurable timer in GUI
    - Flicker-filter (optional GUI flicker-filter with five levels, high enabled by default)
    - International-language fonts for the GUI (via TTF-Fonts, configurable in UI-Settings)*
    - Language files for translated GUI (over 28 languages so far), switch from GUI
    - GUI and video calibration (including storing calibration settings per resolution)
    - Displays system info under Settings (Build date, free space, IP, temperature)
    - Screenshot capture function, take snap shots of GUI (inc. video overlay support)
    - Configurable memory cache buffer for video/audio playback, configured in GUI

    Other non-GUI features, functions and options:
    - Profiles for Settings (configure + save different hardware-setups and/or user profiles)
    - Fully re-mappable keys for DVD Remote and the game-pad (via keymap.xml)
    (inc. possibility to map and use all RCA-5 IR codes from a universal remote)
    - Submenu control to add/remove/edit skin buttons easy (edit dialogSubMenu.xml)
    - Volume control (by default mapped to right thumbstick up/down, edit in keymap.xml)
    - Auto-detection of UDF 1.02, XDVDFS/CDX and ISO9660 – mode1/mode2/XA*
    - Auto-launch Xbox game on insert with enable/disable optional from within GUI
    - Option to auto-launch other application upon Audio-CD/CDDA insert (set in XML)
    - Option to auto-launch other application upon DVD-Video media insert (set in XML)
    - Clock/date synchronization from a (NT SNTP) Time Server on the network/internet
    - Built-in WebServer for remote control of XBMC (http//:xboxIPaddressHere.asp)
    - Built-in FTP-Server, connect to it via a FTP client to copy files to/from Xbox HDD
    - Supports Static-IP/Subnetmask/DNS and alternative DHCP-client for auto-config
    - Network-Configuration and Setup via Graphical User Interface (Settings => Network)
    - Auto-temperature and fan-speed control options (Settings => General => System)
    - Harddrive (HDD) spindown (spin-down disk when XBMC is idle or use network)*
    - Emergency Recovery Console (enables the FTP-server if corrupt xml/media files)*

    * = Experimental, unfinished, unstable, buggy and/or limited
    ** = Most Xbox DVD-ROM drives are very picky with CD/DVD media disks, see FAQ
    *** = XBMC currently only have DVD VOB and IFO parsing support, (no menu support)
    **** = Xbox’s hard drive file-system has file & folder name/character limitations, see FAQ
    ***** = DRM (Digital Rights Management) protected files are not supported by XBMC

  • CharlyD

    I misspoke in my previous post – the XBox360 and Windows Media Center 2005 with rollup 2 have all the functionality I described now. The XBMC site does not mention the 360 and I suspect that this application only applies to the previous generation of XBox.

  • Andrew McLaughlin

    The whole point of the XBMC was to give an example of a very successful open source mediacenter project. It would have been really interesting to see what the community could do with it if the Xbox had the horsepower to drive HD.

    The original xbox pretty much rules as far as media playback devices are concerned. Its just constrained to the xbox platform. I’m surprised someone hasn’t figured out how to take that build and port it to a PC or other device with some improved performance.