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MediaReady Devices To Bridge PCs and CE Applications

A collaborative effort between a firmware developer and a hardware vendor will soon launch a new approach to the home entertainment “convergence” concept — a DVD player that combines a media-centric PC, a cable or satellite set-top box and a video game console in a single low-cost device.

In addition, the players will be capable of networking with other PCs in the home and will deliver subscription-based streamed audio and video content through new services facilitated by the product developers. The developer plans to build support for the concept by offering both product manufacturers and retailers a cut of the subscription residual revenue stream.

The hardware devices will be based on the Linux operating system and a middleware platform called MediaReady, which was developed by New York-based software developer CAC Media.

The middleware system acts as a bridge between two different types of relatively inexpensive CE chipsets to perform a wide range of functions, like the CPU of a computer. MediaReady devices will not require expensive PC-style processors.

The Lafayette MediaReady 4000 device will use a Via reference board and a Sigma 8475 chipset, “but the hardware on the bottom is independent of the operating system,” said Ken Nelson, CAC Media CEO. “The chipsets used are up to the individual manufacturers to decide.”

Pompano Beach, Fla.-based manufacturer Video Without Boundaries (VWB) was enlisted as the first MediaReady manufacturer/distributor, and has reached a brand-licensing and distribution deal with Boca Raton, Fla.-based Lafayette Electronics to deliver the first iteration of the MediaReady system under the Lafayette name to select retailers.

Lafayette, meanwhile, is considering adding the product to a new line of mid- to high-end A/V products it plans to launch at CES.

The Lafayette MediaReady 4000 will carry a $399.99 suggested retail when it ships later this year, and will incorporate an entertainment-centric computer with a 20GB hard disk drive, wireless keyboard, remote control, and built-in DVD video player. The unit’s DVD drive will play back DVD movies, CDs, MP3s, home videos and digital still pictures.

Players will also function as hubs for home networks, allowing a wired or wireless connection to multiple PCs anywhere in the home. Users will be able to view and play back files stored on remote PCs on their home theater systems using a MediaReady player. Additionally, users will be able to manage stored music and video files by moving them back and forth from the MediaReady hard drive and the hard drive of a connected PC. Users can also expand hard disk storage by purchasing any off-the-shelf USB or FireWire hard drive.

An Internet browser will allow users to view e-mail or Web pages on TV screens, in a fashion similar to a WebTV terminal, using a supplied wireless keyboard.

Due to the smaller internal hard drive size in the first model, personal video recording capability will be omitted, CAC Media said. Additionally, because CAC is working out digital rights management issues with content producers, it has elected to omit CD or DVD burning from early products, although company representatives plan to add that functionality in subsequent models.

All MediaReady models will include Java, Macromedia Flash, Web-based and local gaming, a variety of Internet media players including a proprietary player developed by CAC Media in association with RealNetworks under the latter’s Helix program.

Video outputs on the Lafayette MediaReady 4000 include component RGB (supporting up to 480p output), S-video, composite and VGA.

MediaReady systems will support broadband Internet connections via direct Ethernet connection to a cable or DSL modem, or over wired and wireless home networks.

In the first quarter of 2004, CAC Media will begin working with content providers to deliver “music and video over IP” to MediaReady devices.

Nelson said CAC would also work as facilitators in delivering streamed content to the devices, but from the end-user’s point of view, those services will appear to be offered from the hardware manufacturer.

“We are bringing both the retailers and the manufacturers into the food chain of delivering content to consumers,” Nelson said. “There will be a residual royalty of revenue streams that we are providing to both retailers and manufacturers.”

He said that while margins on products like DVD players are typically very low, “with a [concept] like this, a retailer or manufacturer would easily make at least two times their margin in the first year.”

Nelson said streamed video content would be sent over broadband connections to MediaReady devices using three different sales models. These include pay-per-view video, subscription video on demand and long-term content purchase, where a movie can be stored indefinitely on a system’s hard drive. The latter will not support burning to a removable CD-R or DVD-R disc in future devices, Nelson said.

CAC Media is being careful to respect both content protection rights and consumers’ rights to legitimately record content they have purchased, Nelson said.

“We understand both sides, and we want to do the right thing,” he said.