The next big thing in consumer electronics

You'll no doubt recollect the famous scene in the 1967 movie "The Graduate," in which a newly minted graduate, portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, is advised to seek a career in "plastics."

Feb 1st, 2004

You'll no doubt recollect the famous scene in the 1967 movie "The Graduate," in which a newly minted graduate, portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, is advised to seek a career in "plastics." Today, if you were to believe the pundits at the Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas in January, the word would be "HDTV." Ever the optimists, the big names in TV manufacturing are saying that 2004 will be the year that HDTV really takes off. And, curiously enough, I think they may be right on the mark. But, they are likely to be left in the dark of many finished basements. Read on!

There are more than a few signs that the '04 graduate may be too late for this particular rocket ship. For example, sales of digital TV sets rose dramatically in 2003 to $6.1 billion, a 44% hike. Yes, that's right, more than $6 billion of these fancy TV sets that typically retail for several thousand dollars. This year you can expect to see such TV sets retailing well below the thousand-dollar price point. Sales of plasma TV sets soared to the $1.5 billion mark in 2003, up from just over $500 million, a 200 percent hike.

But, now take a look at the "next big thing" in personal computers, oops, sorry, "media centers." Gateway offers a $1000 Family Room Media Center that claims to be a whiz-bang system that will do handstands in your finished basement. All you need to do is add a wide-screen monitor of your choice and you're off to multimedia heaven. At around $4000 Gateway offers a full-blown media center that includes a 42-inch plasma TV with a supersonic 3-GHz processor with a whopping half a gig of memory and a honking 160-GB hard drive.

But, unless you've got "four large" to drop immediately, just wait a while for those prices to be halved, say, by the end of 2004. Just in case you think I'm blowing steam out my ears, check out Microsoft's Media Center Showcase web site that has 16 brands to choose from. And that was back in December 2003 (just go to "Media Center PC" on Google to see what's new and different this week).

Of course, if only Microsoft and its competitors would get their collective acts together on standards for media-center PCs, we'd see much more progress and far more competition in price and technology. But, hey guys, quit the squabbling, there's going to be more than enough moolah around when Joe Consumer gets around to chucking out his creaking analog TV set and makes with the digital version.

But, wait, there's more. How about the "personal media center?" You've seen those sleek little Apple iPods that your teenage offspring have been brandishing for the last year or so? For $500, a typical music-crazed pimply youth can cram some 10,000 songs (yes, you read it right, 10,000 songs) onto a 40-gig hard disk. Why anyone would want to carry around 10,000 songs is quite beyond me but that's another story. Rumor has it that Apple will eventually pop out a $100 iPod with enough storage for 1000 songs. As they say in New York City, "Enough, already."

But, that tiny iPod is also going to surface as a personal media center that can be used to display digital photos and videos as well as play music. And it's only a chip or two from becoming a digital camera, a PDA and a cell phone as well—and all that for a price well below the original $500 iPod. Gives a whole new meaning to the "wired" century, or more accurately, the "wireless" century.

As for me, my "media center" consists of several hefty bookshelves filled with my favorite media—that is to say, books. Dinosaur that I am, I still plunge into Boston for theater, opera, concerts, ballet, movies and even the tragicomedy that is the Red Sox, and all manner of "live" events. Some leopards just won't change their spots. By the way, the word I'm passing on to raw graduates this year is "media center."

Jeffrey Bairstow
Online Editor
jbairstow@pennwell.com

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