The next big things in home entertainment, if you believe the hype at recent trade shows, will be Apple TV and Microsoft’s IPTV-integrated Xbox 360 video games console.

Apple Computer Chief Executive Steve Jobs unveiled Apple TV, a set-top box that allows users to stream content from their computers directly to the television set, at the Macworld Conference and Expo in San Francisco. “Apple TV is like a DVD player for the 21st century — you connect it to your entertainment system just like a DVD player, but it plays digital content you get from the Internet rather than DVDs you get from a physical store,” said Jobs.

Apple started shipping the new gizmos, which store up to 50 hours of video, 9,000 songs and 25,000 photos, in the US in February, priced at $US299.

At the Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft Co-Founder and Chairman Bill Gates boasted his latest innovation would combine next-generation TV and gaming into one unique entertainment platform. The Xbox 360, to which TV and film downloads were added last November, will expand its capabilities so users will also be able to watch TV channels via their consoles and enjoy the platform’s communications tools. Giant telcos including AT&T in the US, BT in the UK and Deutsche Telekom in Germany are deploying the new technology, which is expected to be available by the end of this year.

So how fast will these innovations reach the Asia-Pacific region, and how will they impact existing content distribution players? The short answers may be: not yet, and too early to tell. But there will be some challenges and stumbling blocks, according to various executives in the region. “It is much too early to speculate about these new devices and initiatives as iTunes is not even available in most Asian countries and there will still be many geo-filtering issues that the Hollywood studios and content providers need to work out with these platforms,” said Todd Miller, senior vice president and managing director, Asia, Sony Pictures Television International.

“What is certain – which these announcements underline – is that entertainment and media consumption will increasingly be both mobile and on-demand,” he continued. “There will always be new platforms and new technological developments and things will change, but for now the traditional platforms still dominate, especially in Asia.”

“The Apple TV and new Xbox 360 will no doubt be another step towards converging internet with the living room, and in so doing, ease and enhance the enjoyment of internet distributed content,” said Ong Chao Choon, PriceWaterhouseCoopers Partner, Singapore.

“However, with rampant piracy still a global concern, especially in Asia Pacific, their threat to the traditional distribution platforms will depend on the availability of downloadable content on the Internet. That in turn is a function of the advancement in technology to protect digital rights, licensing issues and the rigor with which intellectual property rights are enforced in the region. What is becoming clear though, is that consumers will increasingly demand video-on-demand access or store-and-view platform, rather than to build their lives around broadcast-based programme schedule,” said Ong.

Craig Zimbulis, president and chief executive of Anytime, said both initiatives point towards a future where “the consumer is empowered to get content from wherever they choose and then network it to a variety of devices for viewing at their convenience."

Anytime is preparing to roll out Anytime TV, a new on-demand entertainment portal that will deliver Hollywood blockbuster movies, TV shows, popular music videos and premium games throughout the region. Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, Korea, and Taiwan will be among the first markets to get the service.

The exec indicated his company will work with Microsoft on its venture with Alcatel for an IPTVservice which will be rolled out via a number of telcos through a closed network set top box. “We will be supplying many of these deployments by way of affiliate license agreements,” said Zimbulis.

He hints at a possible tie-up with Apple TV, noting, “As rights become available we would consider making Anytime TV compliant but (Apple) need to get their DRM accepted, which is at least 12 months away in my opinion.”

Neither Apple TV nor Microsoft can expect a warm welcome in South Korea, where the major telcos have launched or are starting IPTV services, competing with cable operators which control more than 80% of the pay TV market. So the incumbents “don’t want another new player to join the race,” said Jay Ju-Yeun Kang, senior manager, content development and acquisition team of telco KT Corp’s media division. “Apple TV might have to compete with the leading mobile phone service company like SK Telecom. As Korean telcos who are also major internet service providers are expecting QPS market to come in the near future and busy preparing for the new era, it wouldn’t be an easy game for Apple TV. Besides, general Korean consumers are IBM-oriented PC users and not familiar with Mac OS. In addition, reducing content download time might be a barrier to overcome for Apple TV and Microsoft as new media services offered by domestic providers are largely based on realtime streaming.”

QPS means Quadruple Play Service, which combines the triple play service of broadband internet access, television and telephone with wireless service provisions.

Similarly, there is a technology-based limitation in the Philippines. “A huge majority of Filipinos access the Internet via Internet cafes. The Apple TV and Microsoft initiatives are largely premised on individuals having personal access, and not shared, to computers either at home or in offices,” said Dingdong L. Caharian, vice president business development and content management GMA New Media Inc.

Catherine Payne, Chief Executive of Southern Star International, is convinced viewers will adopt those media which deliver the content they want in the manner that best fits their needs. She adds, “I do believe that signature programmes in general will command the download space and that there is still a reliance on the big standard/terrestrial audience to drive awareness. I agree that while standard/free TV audiences and therefore advertising will still command the biggest slice of the audience in the next five years, demand TV services and pay TV services that can serve a specific audience segment will continue to make inroads."