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Will Linux Rule The Digital Home?

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For consumer electronics industry, digital home is the next big pot of gold, a pot so big that it has everyone from Apple (AAPL) to Microsoft (MSFT) to Intel (INTC) licking their chops. But it is Linux could emerge as one of the biggest winners in this bonanza.

The demand for networked CE devices is going to increase in tandem with the availability of faster in-home networks that can shunt data at blazingly fast speeds. Technologies such as MOCA, HPNA 2.0 and 802.11n will allow us to move content from one device to another.
As a result of that, we should expect the demand for the Home Media Servers and Entertainment Hubs could grow to be a $44 billion business in 2011, according to ABI Research. (Well, don’t pay much attention to the mega-billion number, but instead focus on the trends!)

ABI says that the digital media server market is made up of four main categories: PCs, set-top boxes, consumer electronics devices such as gaming consoles or PVRs, and Network Attached Storage (NAS) hardware.
“Linux as embedded OS should take up a substantial part of the set-top box and CE market, but not the PC,” says Michael Wolf, principal analyst with ABI and author of the study. Who wants their PC to be their media center? Okay, at least not us. The logic is simple – the other two players – Apple and Microsoft will have their own proprietary systems. Apple will not share them with anyone else, of course! Microsoft would as long as you play ball with their DRM system or some other lock-in. (And they are not to be taken lightly.)

This leaves CE makers, and start-ups with one option – Linux. The embedded Linux has already been adapted and widely deployed in everything from Sharp PDAs to Motorola Mobile Phones to set-top boxes. Many of the newer digital music systems such as Sonos are powered by the little Penguin. TiVo, for example is based on a version of Linux. So is DirecTV’s set-top box! Moxi, is another set-top box maker that uses Linux. AT&T HomeZone is powered by Linux as well.

Scores of other start-ups are experimenting with Linux-based home entertainment systems, music players and digital video recorders. IntAct, a spinout from set-top box maker, Amino has just started selling a Linux-based software stack that runs on any kind of chip, and can also run Opera browser. And there are many more similar packages out there, or under development.

The signs are pointing to a Linux-powered living room. Do you agree? (Take our poll.)

17 Responses to “Will Linux Rule The Digital Home?”

  1. Linux may have the most devices, but if those devices are low-cost peripherals, and Windows Vista can maintain the media server position because of HDTV recording via the CableCARD, HD-DVD support and other digital media management, then who has won?

    Considering that Vista MCE has the lead to be the media server due to the items mentioned above, from a contribution margin point of view, Microsoft will win.


  2. Jesse Kopelman

    Isn’t Microsoft still sitting on a mountain of cash? I’m pretty sure they can just buy this market (i.e. give the software for free and even give all kind of funding to vendors who will use their software) if Linux gains too much traction. It’s not like they haven’t used this tactic with great success before.

  3. paul,

    the question is not about winning on the desktop, which in my opinion is an attempt to win the “past.” linux has some much potential in the CE. I have spoken to so many “big” CE companies and their eyes shine when they start talking about Linux for CE. That is the future market, so Linux is moving in the right direction it seems.

  4. In Connecticut, we had Comcast as an ISP and TV cable provider. The TV Cable box was from Scientific Atlanta. It had a small digital card in a slot, the removal of which would prevent the appliance from working, I think it was the DRM part. The appliance could not be transferred to another room. It would freeze from time to time. The TV screen would pixillate, there would be random pixels all over it. This situation would last sometimes minutes, sometimes for hours. I heard from the cable technicians who came to service it that the box was based on Windows. To fix the television signal reception, most times, it was a matter or restarting the cable box, just like a Windows PC.

  5. Last time I thought that Linux was ready to be a competitor to Windows on the desktop, I saw a beta version of XP and that changed things back in MS favour. This time, I haven’t seen a version of Vista, but I’m not convinced it will be enough to maintain MS position as the ultra-dominant OS.
    Linux is cheap, and runs with limited hardware (seen Gumstix?). That alone will make set top box manufacturers favour it, providing they can implement the required features. As Windows becomes less dominant, there is less reason to use it in embedded devices, so I definitely see the trend being towards Linux in a lot of the home devices – in the desktop PC market it will take longer, but I don’t see MS reclaiming any share that they lose…

  6. SageTV provides Linux and Windows Media Center software competitive with MCE and Tivo today with built in placeshifting comparable to Slingbox and the best media extender solution out there. Check it out at

    Linux already has dominant market share for digital home in gateways, routers, NAS boxes and the large majority of consumer electronics today. That economy is dominant in the digital home area and growing at an impressive pace.

    Considering what happens after this trend is played out is interesting. Windows PCs surrounded by a variety of Linux appliances will challenge Microsoft’s continued dominance and ability to control pricing and distribution. Heavy handed efforts by Microsoft and others to establish captive customer relationships will continue to alienate them from consumers.

  7. Hmm, I know something that will be able to deliver great experiences on Linux early next year. This could be a huge, huge win for Flash as more people look to write applications and build an experience around these devices.

  8. Jesse Kopelman

    Chris B, it sounds good on paper but I can’t believe that the vested interest in Windows (not just Microsoft but all the consumer PC makers) won’t do whatever it takes to make Vista the dominant platform for the home.

  9. What is going to be even more amazing is the number of computer users that will switch over to OpenSuSE in 2007. Microsoft Vista doesn’t have enough reasons to upgrade and with WGA checks it is becoming a bigger and bigger pain (this is a big problem for users who own OEM versions or if you swap out hardware).

    This fall a number of things fall into place to change things in the linux world:

    1. Flash 9
    2. Wine Mono runs pretty much everything you can run on XP.
    3. XGL graphical desktop will be rock solid.
    4. Inskscape will read Illustrator files
    5. KDE 5
    6. Google Summer of Code will show it’s results for linux
  10. People aren’t making a choice to use Linux! They’re buying the Tivo, Slingbox, or whatever, based on the selling points of that device. Now the selling points don’t include “With vitamin A and LINUX!” I want a device that does what it’s supposed to do. If Linux does that, great. If Apple does that, great. The whole point of the “digital living room” is to get away from programming and retarded complexity forced on us by computers. Whoever does that will own the market.

  11. I have embedded Linux running on a Buffalo LinkStation NAS and the Twonkyvision PNP Media Server serving out mostly music, but video and internet radio too. I love it. I really think the day of embedded Linux is coming soon. A server in every home.

  12. Tim Anderson

    I use a PC as a media centre (just plain XP) and I must say it works very well indeed. DigiTV card for TV, which is now able to serve live TV around the network.