The latest big idea in high-tech strikes me as straight out of Gearheads in Wonderland.
In case you hadn't heard, the new concept at last week's Consumer Electronics Show was the all-in-one media player for your living room. Picture a giant menu displayed on your television, letting you click with a remote control to record and play back TV shows, watch DVD movies, listen to MP3 songs, search your music collection, send e-mail and, of course, surf the Net -- all without leaving your couch.
It might sound like WebTV on steroids, but several new multimedia machines announced last week would do more than today's interactive TVs because they could connect with TV sets, stereos and computers throughout your house.
The buzz around these devices reflects their potential impact on companies in both the computer and electronics industries, rival camps whose products increasingly overlap as everything gets plugged into the Internet. If they prove popular, the new media gateways could also empower network operators vying to deliver high-speed Internet access to homes.
You can't buy these all-in-one entertainment systems yet. The machines are not likely to hit the market until next year. But since consumers don't even know what a home entertainment gateway is yet, it's anyone's guess how much demand there will be.
"I think these visions are a little accelerated in terms of how quickly convergence in the marketplace is going to take place," said Joe Laszlo, a Jupiter Media Metrix analyst.
The most intriguing visions came from Microsoft Corp. and Moxi Digital Inc., a start-up founded by the man who created WebTV and sold it to Microsoft. (The Washington Post Co. is an investor in Moxi, along with AOL Time Warner Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp.) Moxi presented a television-centric model for managing video and audio in the home. Microsoft, not surprisingly, cast personal computers in the starring role and relegated TVs to the supporting cast.
Moxi produced a prototype, while Microsoft's media menu is still a concept. Moxi chief executive Steve Perlman showed off a box holding a TV receiver for pulling in satellite or cable signals. Inside were a DVD/CD player, video recorder, gear for distributing Internet access around the house, and an 80-gigabyte hard drive for storing TV shows and music.
"With Moxi, you don't need a CD player any more, or a DVD player," said Perlman, adding that part of its appeal would be fewer devices cluttering up the home.
On the same day Moxi unveiled its box, Bill Gates announced that Microsoft is developing software to add TV viewing and recording capabilities to desktop computers. Also in the works for the Windows XP operating system, he said, are oversized menus and handheld remotes that would let people operate computers from a distance. Then PCs could be wirelessly networked with TVs, he added, letting people access their stored music and TV shows from either.
Forrester Research analyst Josh Bernoff was among those who gave the edge to Moxi for managing home entertainment. But Bernoff also said he believes families will develop parallel digital networks, one linking their TVs and the other connecting their computers.
"The problem with Microsoft's view is it would be a PC in the middle of your entertainment experience," Bernoff added. "Let's be fair here. PCs crash. PCs have configurations that need to be fiddled with. "
Also of interest was how Moxi plans to make money, by licensing its software for managing the box to satellite and cable operators. That would put network operators, not a software company, in the driver's seat for dictating what the home entertainment box could do. Look for copy-protection schemes in Moxi, for example, to protect pay-per-view content and set limits on what consumers could record and share with friends.
"With a network-operator-driven business model, you can expect Moxi to focus more on network content," contended Joe Belfiore, a general manager of Microsoft's eHome division. "We have a focus on your personal content, which I think you will see less of from Moxi."
Perlman, an ex-Microsoft employee, retorted that Microsoft's announcement about remote-viewing software was classic "vaporware" designed to divert attention from Moxi's innovative approach: "From Microsoft's point of view, this thing is terrifying because instead of the PC becoming the hub of households as it is in business, it becomes a peripheral," he declared. "We are saying the broadband operator will be the controlling hub of the household."
Moxi's box is an affront to Microsoft in several ways. For one, it runs on Linux software, not the Windows operating system. For another, it contains a Web browser, so people theoretically could do on their TV sets basic information look-ups and other tasks they now do online from PCs. Moreover, its digital media player is from Microsoft's rival RealNetworks.
But to me, Moxi's best feature may be the ability to share one video recorder with up to four TV sets. That would enable the kids, say, to watch different prerecorded shows in their rooms while their parents simultaneously watched something else in the living room. To accomplish that today would require multiple video recorders.
Like Moxi, Gates also wants to leverage a single video recorder onto multiple screens, only he wants to put the recorder inside the computer, not the set-top TV box.
In addition to support for TV recording and electronic programming guides, Microsoft said it is developing software for portable flat-screen monitors (code-named Mira) with touch-screen menus that people could carry around the house to remotely operate their PCs.
Mira seems like a more powerful idea than watching TV on your computer. It wasn't so great a stretch to picture people in the future doing what Gates showed in a promotional video -- glancing at both a newspaper and a Mira monitor, then taking the Mira to the bathroom.
Leslie Walker's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.