Television to go

If that loud-mouthed weenie on the bus next to you annoys you with his gadget-fiddling now, just wait, it’s about to get worse. Soon they’ll be cheering their way through David Suzuki’s Nature of Things. “New haircut, Dave! Sweet!”

The latest technology vision coming to a geek near you is a tiny little digital video player with a tiny little screen. He will soon be available to grab his favorite TV show, recorded at home, and plop it onto a mobile device, to watch it on the way to work.

Don’t believe it? Microsoft is getting into this technology, so it’s not just a passing fad. Bill Gates and the Redmond kids have invented the Portable Media Center. It’s a portable gadget that can grab recorded TV shows from a PC so that you can take them with you. The gadget can also play digital music files and show pictures. It’s kind of a mobile multimedia device.

But there’s a catch. This gadget is designed to work with computers that have Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition loaded on them. That’s a variant of XP designed to bring TV watching and recording among other multimedia functions to the computer.

Frankly, I don’t see much utility in this approach. You and I don’t watch television on our computers…yet. That said, I did mess around with one of Hewlett Packard’s PCs that runs the XP Media Center Edition software. For weeks, the HP PC sat in my living room where my TV used to be and people kept asking me, “What happened to your TV?” and I’d say, “I replaced it with that,” and I’d point to the HP computer. They’d look at me like I had just shaved my cat for fun. My female friends were especially dismayed. “God, I’d never put THAT in my living room. It’s so ugly.”

Now, the HP system is not really that ugly. It’s quite handsome as PCs go. But point taken – it was weird to have a PC as the living room’s centerpiece. And its 17″ LCD screen wasn’t crowd-friendly when several people wanted to watch very important PBS documentaries together.

What I really want is to be able to take shows from my TV, not my computer. Still, James Barnard, Microsoft’s product manager for Portable Media Center, justified the PC-centric approach this way: “More and more people are using the PC as a hub for home entertainment and they want to share that with other devices.” You may disagree with this approach, but there are technologies under development that will make TV watching PC-centric.

First, you can bet your snack food budget that there will be recordable TV functions built in to the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, due out in 2006 or 2007.

Plus, at the Consumer Electronics Show not a long ago, Microsoft announced a device called a Windows Media Center Extender that will pair your computer with your TV, pushing content from one to the other. They also showed off an HP-built TV that had an integrated extender.

The reality is the PC will be in your TV and your TV can be your PC – probably via a network connection – and by the end of the decade. I am willing to bet that your TV will be any one of a series of flat-panel screens fed TV signals by a computer.

One approach to this caught my attention. Hy-Tek Manufacturing has created a device called the Tek Panel. It’s a 30″ or 37″ LCD TV that is actually a computer with a TV tuner card that runs Windows XP Pro. It’ll make your accountant run screaming into the night with its $8,500 price tag, but the point is it works as either device today, yet it’s designed for the living room. It doesn’t do either role well. In fact, it uses an off-the-shelf ATI video card kit for its TV technology, and the software is sort of elementary. Hy-Tek should have used Windows XP Media Center Edition. Still, I bet they will, once Microsoft rolls out its plan to commandeer your TV, when the Portable Media Center devices and the Media Center Extender launch.

Mark my words, that annoying Suzuki-cheering weenie will be on your bus yet. Let’s face it, though — that weenie will probably be you.