Two and a half months ago when I started the DMA (Digital Media Adapter) for Living Room series, I had no idea how complex and difficult this would be. The sheer number of devices, content, and usage models was daunting. To boot, I don’t blog or evaluate products for a living, so much of this was done at home in my spare time. What I would like to do in this final installment is to look at the big picture in terms of how each device compares in capabilities, falls into segments and the future of DMAs.
I looked at seven DMAs in total, with varying ranges of feature sets, capabilities, content types, and prices. The devices I analyzed were:
- Apple TV: $99 with remote
- Roku XD S: $99 with remote and composite cable
- Boxee Box: $199 with HDMI cable and QWERTY remote
- Western Digital TV Live Hub: $199 with 1TB hard drive
- Google TV by Logitech: $299 with full-sized keyboard with trackpad, HDMI cable, and IR blaster
- Xbox 360 “S”: $299 with 250GB hard drive, controller, composite video cable, and two games
- AMD Fusion Theater PC, aka AMD “FTPC”: $399 with 160GB hard drive, wireless keyboard with trackpad and remote
I ran them through multiple usage models with different content while gauging simplicity from start to end on:
- Video: commercial and personal, web, remote, local device and local network.
- Music: commercial and personal, web, remote, local device and local network.
- Photos: personal, web, remote, local device, and local network.
- Games: local device, web, and app.
- Social Media: web, app, and overall integration.
- Web: Anything one can do with a browser and the web.
To get to the major “capability clusters,” I have categorized the DMA’s capabilities and segmented them into 12 variables. This is way too complex but gets us on a path to segment into something simpler. Here are the main capabilities:
- Play from Cloud Service: DMA plays video, audio, or photos from a cloud service like Netflix, Flickr, Pandora, etc.
- Play from DMAs Main Storage: DMA plays video, audio, or photos from the DMA main storage. Content initially downloaded or synced from peripheral. DMA does not need broadband to playback content.
- Play from DMAs External Storage: DMA plays video, audio, or photos from storage connected externally. This is storage like a USB stick or USB hard drive. DMA does not need to be connected to broadband to playback content.
- Play from Network Device: DMA plays video, audio, or photos from a networked device. These devices could be iPads, PCs, NAS, other DMAs, etc.
- Play to Network Device: DMA plays video, audio or photos to a networked device via DLNA. The device could be a PC, another DMA, an iPad, iPhone, etc.
- Sync from Cloud Service: DMA syncs content from a cloud service and can operate without broadband. These can be services like Picasa Web, Amazon VOD, and MP3Tunes.
- Sync from External Device: DMA syncs content from an external device which can be networked. The DMA “imports” the content into its file system. DMA can operate without broadband. External devices could be a digital camera, smartphone, PC, USB stick, NAS, etc.
- Local Games: DMA plays games that have been stored on the DMAs primary mass storage. DMA does not need to be connected to broadband to play game. Examples include PC games and Xbox games.
- Full Browser: DMA has full browser and can play video, audio, and photos and play games and interact on social media.
- Video Chat: Users interact using video. Examples include Skype, Google Chat, Kinect Video, etc.
- Social Media: User can interact via Twitter, Facebook, or proprietary social network.
- Complexity: DMA’s difficulty to setup and use.
- HW Upgradability: Hardware can be upgraded to provide greater capabilities.
As you can see, most of the variability in DMA capabilities has to do with storage, games, browsing and complexity. From this, four categories emerge:
1. Streamers: Apple TV and Roku XD S fit into this category. They are less expensive, have no storage, are simplest to setup and primarily stream content from the cloud. They cannot operate productively at any time without the cloud.
2. Surfers: Boxee Box and Google TV fall into this category. They are more expensive than streamers, offer full streamer capability and add full web and multiple “channel” capabilities. They are more aware of the household network and can share their content and offer full social media capabilities. They cannot operate productively at any time without the cloud.
3. Storers: The Western Digital TV Live Hub fits into this category. It takes all the capability of the Streamers and adds local storage, providing the ability to buy, download, play, and store paid and personal content. The devices are more complex in than Streamers and Surfers in that the user has to choose where they want content stored or synched. They can play content without a cloud connection once it has been downloaded.
4. Sinks (as in kitchen): As in “everything but the kitchen sink,” the Xbox 360 “S” and the AMD FTPC fit into this category. The kitchen sink variety have every feature of the Streamers, Surfers, Storers and pile on even more features, including complex games, video chat, offer the most peripheral options and are even hardware upgradable in many cases. They are the most complex and the most expensive to fit with more features.
My Thoughts on the Future of the DMA
The future of the living room DMA is bright and there will be many changes along the way in form factors, capabilities, services, and prices. As I outline below, some of the capability will be sucked into Smart TVs and set top boxes. Some of it will be sucked into smartphones and tablets but many higher end features and usage models will keep them as a stand-alone category.
- Low-End DMAs Integrate into Smart TV: Lower capability, lower cost DMA’s will be integrated into HDTVs. This one is easy to call. Some call this “Smart TVs”. At the recent 2011 CES, every major TV manufacturer announced TV lines with integrated DMAs. Some were based on the Google TV platform, a few were Yahoo-based, and some were proprietary. Streamers will get sucked into Smart TVs as quickly as it takes to roll them out into medium range price points. Some Surfers will as well, but only when dual core designs are affordable and can deliver an enjoyable internet experience.
- More DMA Features in STB: Set top box vendors along with the service providers are busy integrating more and more DMA features into their set top boxes. This is part of the war between the OTT (Over The Top) ecosystem versus the cable and satellite ecosystem. The traditional STB and service providers wouldn’t “cross the streams” of personal content but will be forced to integrate this to not get squeezed out.
- Mobile Devices Don’t Kill DMA: I have been connecting mobile devices to my TV for about 10 years now and am very familiar with the plusses and minuses. Recently, I have watched movies and TV shows off of my iPad and videos off of an Atrix phone with the HD Multimedia Dock. They both provide really good quality experiences but have one major flaw unrelated to the technology: when you have them plugged into the TV, you don’t have access to the device. When a phone call or text comes in, what do you do? When that important email, Tweet or Facebook message or status update comes in, what do you do? Stop the movie, undock the device, take care of the alert, then re-dock and reinitiate what you were doing? I don’t think so.
- More Local Storage: I believe more local storage will find its way into devices. Home broadband is increasing at a much slower rate than the increase in data density. It was recently reported that Netflix consumed 20% of prime-time bandwidth in North America. Imagine what happens as Smart TV’s get connected. Higher levels of caching will be required to maintain QOS. More storage will drive some of the Storer capability away from the TV given the immense cost adder. Outside the U.S. it isn’t all about paid services, so Storers which allow for Torrent and DivX capabilities will just grow.
- Over The Air TV: Call me crazy, but I think you will see DMAs emerge with over the air HD tuners in North America. Why? Over time, consumers will get smart and realize that you can essentially “cut the cord” and go with a DMA plus OTA HD tuner and get the best of both worlds. You get pay as you go for the shows you love PLUS the live broadcasts of sports, news and reality shows.
- Prices Rise Short Term: With home broadband bandwidth becoming saturated, prices for streaming content will rise. Cable companies and telcos will start charging content distributors for priority bandwidth, who will in-turn charge users. This is the classic net-neutrality debate.
- New Business Models: The DMA wheel continues to turn due to content and advertising profits. The all you can eat content models will drive toward package deals, value menus and pay as you go. As Google and Microsoft fine-tune their video, music, and game service franchises, there will be many more opportunities to subsidize DMAs and make them even less expensive. It will be less about acquisition as services mature and more about consumption. Advertising will undergo the most changes and even enable 100% subsidized DMAs. Product placement overlays in the videos, finite targeting of standard advertising and fast ad-to-purchase techniques at much higher CPMs and CPCs will enable this subsidy.
- New Categories Created: Mashups will occur that either haven’t been productized yet or haven’t been successful up to this point. Intelligent routers with DMA capabilities will emerge, as well, DMA media servers that sync with the cloud will store the family’s content and distribute it out to the home. Home AV receivers will combine with DMA technologies to enhance their utility. Blu-ray players have adopted low-end Streamer functionality already and they will start adopting higher-order features like Surfers.
- Advanced Capabilities: Advanced capabilities desired by consumers will keep the entire category from getting sucked into Smart TVs. This is in addition to the new categories described above. The stereoscopic 3D (S3D) wave will permeate its way into DMAs. Content will go to S3D and DMAs will follow. Advanced HCI (Human Computer Interaction) and NUI (Natural User Interface) capabilities will permeate into DMAs and become differentiators between vendors. The physical remotes will be augmented with computer listening and computer vision to enable easier content research and management. Do a gesture and change the “channel”. Ask to see “The Bachelor” and it finds the Bachelor and can distinguish between dogs, cats, people stretching their arms and different people in the living room. This will enable easier search, and with the amount of DMA content becoming unmanageable with menus, will drive toward precise voice search and more sophisticated“suggestion engines”. It goes without saying that the thirst for realism in today’s game consoles won’t subside and will require some serious capabilities to take the levels of realism and gameplay to the next level.
Four classes of living-room DMAs exist today to serve a very wide variety of capabilities, content, user sophistication levels with prices ranging from $99 to $399. DMAs fit into Streamers, Surfers, Storers, or Sink classes. Streamers stream content from the cloud, Storers can actually download and store content; Surfers add web capabilities and Sinks have all those features and many more, basically the “everything but the kitchen sink” class.
In the future, Smart TVs will gobble up today’s basic Streamer and some Surfer capabilities. With an intelligently programmed user interface, Smart TVs will also offer convenient Storer capabilities as many attempt to do already with USB storage device support… but the standalone DMA still has a future. Set top boxes will adopt today’s Streamer and Storer capabilities. Mobile devices won’t steal a lot of the DMA thunder given multi-use usability issues. The future is driven by new product categories, new business models, and advanced capabilities like advanced HCI, personal cloud sync, improved suggestion engines, and more realistic gaming.