The myth of the living-room PC.

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Aug. 7 2006 5:25 PM

The Myth of the Living-Room PC

Why you don't have an Apple iTV.

Moments before Steve Jobs took the wraps off his supercharged new Macs in San Francisco today, he took a minute to talk up the company's recent successes. As numbers flashed on the big screen behind him, Jobs reviewed the latest stats on his retail stores. But the one thing I wanted to see hard data on was conspicuously absent from Jobs' keynote. It's been nearly a year since Apple added downloadable videos and a couch-surfing remote to its lineup. How are those doing, Steve?One more question:How come none of my Apple-loving geek buddies have Macs in their living rooms?

It's not just Apple that's failed to invade the living room. Computer makers have been trying to find space next to the couch for years, but so far all of these attacks have been repulsed. In January, Intel launched a huge marketing program for an ambitious PC-meets-TV brand called Viiv. Instead of a keyboard and mouse, you'd control Viiv from the sofa with a remote control. You'd download movies on demand, subscribe to TV shows, search clips by keywords, and create a personalized, self-updating video collection to watch whenever and wherever you want. This was the convergence of DVD, iTunes, YouTube, and IMDb—couch potato heaven!

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At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Bill Gates, Yahoo CEO Terry Semel, and Tom Hanks took the stage to shill for these über-consoles, "available today starting under $900." Viiv, promised the showmen, would download and play a mind-boggling collection of video. I eagerly arranged for a loaner from Dell and typed up a gushing preview for BusinessWeek. My Viiv never arrived. The few reviewers who got one were stumped by the lack of new features on their test units. Seven months after Viiv's launch, it seems what happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas: Dell's big rollout never happened, and the rumor that Apple was launching a 50-inch plasma-screen Viiv turned out to be pure baloney. This weekend, I found one lonely HP with a Viiv sticker at my local Best Buy. The new HP flyer in my mailbox doesn't mention Viiv at all.

What happened here? Tech pundits say Intel botched their TV debut by pushing technology that wasn't ready. Still, if the living-room PC is such a great idea, why hasn't the Viiv void been filled with better alternatives?

My theory is that PC-TV hybrid products like Viiv aim for a sweet spot that doesn't exist. Very savvy consumers will hack together these setups themselves. The less savvy will just keep their TVs and computers separate. And the folks in the middle? If they're around, nobody's found them yet.

If people actually wanted Viiv-like products, there'd be a lot more do-it-yourself versions while we're waiting for Intel. If the problem were a lack of software, there'd be plenty of open-source projects by impatient hackers—that's how we got Napster and BitTorrent. But the geeks seem uninterested. Where are the obsessive bloggers? The forum feuds? The amateur meetups? Show me any truly hot technology, and I'll show you 100,000 guys who can't wait to tell you about it. Has anyone bored you to death talking about their Media Center PC lately?

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You could argue that living-room PCs have simply yet to grow powerful and affordable enough for the mass market. I asked Harry McCracken, the gadget hound who edits PC World, what he thought of that notion. He dryly handed me a 1992 magazine whose cover depicted Indiana Jones on a PC monitor. "Multimedia Magic with Full PC Power TODAY!" the mag exulted. That could be a Viiv ad from seven months ago. We've had the hardware to make some sort of PC-driven TV console for at least 20 years. With the help of a simple adapter, you can see anything on your living-room screen that you can see on your PC. Today's computers have the power for HD resolution, high-bandwidth downloads, and house-wide networking. So, why hasn't the Great Convergence happened?

McCracken says most homes are consolidating around a two-hub model. A PC (or Mac) with some multimedia features anchors the home office, while a TV with some computerized gear—think TiVo, not desktop computer—owns the living room. Tech marketers talk about the "2-foot interface" of the PC versus the "10-foot interface" of the TV. When you use a computer, you want to lean forward and engage with the thing, typing and clicking and multitasking. When you watch Lost, you want to sit back and put your feet up on the couch. My tech-savvy friends who can afford anything they want set up a huge HDTV with TiVo, cable, and DVD players—then sit in front of it with a laptop on their knees. They use Google and AIM while watching TV, but they keep their 2-foot and 10-foot gadgets separate.

It makes sense that Apple pays lip service to convergence, but a dedicated product—even a gorgeous, one-button iTV—would fall flat. In theory, TVs and PCs were supposed to converge and spawn one hybrid media device. In practice, they touch on the couch without breeding. TiVo buffs up your TV with PC-style software that ends the pain of VCR programming. YouTube delivers a searchable trove of instant-play clips to your computer screen. But when you plunk down on the couch to relax, you probably don't want to search YouTube with a remote wand.

Computer companies should ignore what people claim they want and watch what they actually do. We want the best of both worlds while still keeping them separate. I'm pretty stoked aboutthat buffed-up new Mac. It'll be a great way to watch movies … at my desk.