Computers Shift to Digital Play

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Even as cable set-top boxes continue to add computer-esque capabilities, traditional computers are steering closer to the digital entertainment realm.

The personal computer, once marketed as a time saving work tool, increasingly sprouts multimedia capabilities for entertainment use. But when and if the computer intersects directly with the focal point of the home entertainment center — the TV — is still a question.

It isn't hard to find the multimedia entertainment features in Apple Corp.'s latest iMac G4s computer.

Touted as a home digital hub, the iMac's new Mac OS X operating system provides the considerable processing brainpower needed to capture, process and move digital audio and video files and oversee an array of devices ranging from MP3 players to digital video recorders.

"The whole intent of this product is to be what we would call the center of your digital lifestyle," said Mike Shebanek, product line manger for the iMac.

"We're seeing lots and lots of portable digital devices. Each of those players is wonderful, they are affordable, there is a lot of variety and people have lots of them. But they don't interoperate well with each other, and there is no one central way to manage all of these things and to get the most out of these data collection devices," he said.

While the iMac is still "certainly a computer," it follows a trend toward viewing a computer differently.

No longer is it simply a computational brain for getting work done. It is fast becoming a digital entertainment device, able to help people organize and use their digital music and video.

"It doesn't feel like it is a computer with software — it just feels like an appliance or device that was designed and intended for each of these uses," Shebanek said.

The latest iMac, released in January, includes applications that allow users to rip and burn MP3 files, edit and play back video, burn and play back DVD disks and manage digital photography stores.

For now, Apple stops short of the line separating it from the TV. The iMac doesn't come with a TV tuner card, but such cards are available from third-party manufacturers.

"I think we are really orienting ourselves toward the personal computer audience," Shebanek said. "In general, when people switch on the television they tend to be more passive in what their activities are — they tend to watch and listen. When they walk up to a computer they tend to be more active. And those two haven't seemed to have crossed over yet."

But Apple's rivals at Microsoft Corp. see that line dissolving more quickly.

Microsoft has created its new eHome Division to meld computer and TV sensibilities. The division plans to use the Windows XP platform to ride herd on digital content and devices with the most ubiquitous of television tools — the remote control.

Code named "Freestyle," the format seeks to match the hardware and software with the more relaxed use of digital entertainment, according to Jodie Cadieux, marketing manager for the eHome initiative.

That includes computers with digital video recorder capabilities, TV tuners, ample digital tools and storage space, all governed by a remote control and a more digital TV-esque electronic programming interface.

"We already know people are downloading from the Internet and ripping CDs onto their hard drive in just astoundingly large numbers. We know that the entertainment industry is moving toward delivering content to consumers over the Internet," Cadieux said. "We know that people are creating their own content. So how do we take that and give them another way to enjoy it that is a stepping stone in their usage paradigm to actually taking it from the PC to the TV."

But there is a danger in rushing consumers to that point too fast, Cadieux warns. And with that in mind, Freestyle's mission is to "stair-step" consumers along.

"You need to take them through the process of understanding the PC is more than just productivity — it can be activity as well," she said. "Things that are huge radical shifts away from the way people do things — it takes a while for that to catch on."

Freestyle, for now, is targeting the early crop of digital fiends — teens and college students weaned on Napster who devour digital music and video. But eventually those products will widen to target a mass audience, as digital media becomes more of a household commodity.

"We're absolutely working toward a day where the PC can deliver these sorts of experiences to mass-market consumers," Cadieux said. "It's going to take some time to get there."

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