2006 is already being touted as the year of the media server. Magazines, both on-line and in print, trade and consumer, are projecting that this will be the year that consumers begin to migrate from CD and DVD based media to hard-drive based platforms that manage and replay content that has been loaded from CD and DVD libraries, as well as through on-line download and subscription services.

Hard-drive based servers are not new. In fact, the best-selling consumer electronics product over the past two years is Apple’s iPod, a simple, portable, relatively low-cost hard disk drive server that helps consumers manage and play their music collections.

There are several forces (and marketing budgets) driving these predictions. One is the acceptance of installers to specify these products in their jobs. But the overriding reason is the benefits these systems offer to consumers.

The big question is: What will be the determining factors that will result in the grand predictions coming true? History often provides a window into the future, and we may have already seen the answer just by looking at what made the iPod so dominant: Simplicity and ease of use.

Home Audio Hard-Disk Based Music Playback Systems

While the iPod is the hands-down leader in the portable audio market, the custom installation home market is still fertile ground for an increasing number of players. The jury is still out on whether Media Center PC’s will be accepted into this home market; two of the three major proponents, Gateway and Dell, have dropped out of the market or significantly altered its plans. Additionally, installers are skeptical because of PC-based systems have a history of being less reliable and needing more technical support. So for at least the near term, most installers are sticking with the proven commodities: dedicated music servers from companies such as Escient, ReQuest, Imerge, Russound, Elan and now Qsonix.

There are a lot of similarities between the hardware in these products. They all offer large amounts of storage and can be integrated into new or existing home audio systems. Most offer the ability to play different music in different rooms at any one time.

Where they differ is in their user interface. And just as history has shown us that iPod’s success resulted from its user interface, this may also decide the future of the dedicate home audio server. And given the response from consumers in a recent pilot program, the future may be now in the form of Qsonix’s exclusive touchscreen drag ‘n drop user interface.

Qsonix Solution

Most media servers use interfaces that are based more on video menu structures, and are not geared for stand-alone operation. In addition, they typically require integration into more sophisticated control systems with entry costs as much as $10,000 or more.

As the user interface is where most music servers tend to fall short and leave customers frustrated and confused, Qsonix focused its efforts simplifying the management of the music files. The company designed the Q100 with its own interface, one designed to be as intuitive and easy to use as possible, one that requires minimal training by the installer and one designed to literally put all functions – searching and sorting of music, creating custom playlists, track sampling, and access to cover art and artist notes – right at the user’s fingertips. While the Qsonix interface works independently of third-party controls systems, like Crestron and AMX, the company will also be offering integration with these leading control systems.

Key to this effort is the Q100’s 15-inch LCD touch screen controller, through which the company’s innovative GUI makes the music management and playback so simple that users from ages 5 to 80 can figure it out. Through the company’s unique Album Browser music navigation system, users quickly browse through their entire music library, with each album being represented graphically with it’s cover artwork, artist, genre, year and song track information right on the screen. Music can also be easily sorted by artist, album, genre, or year, as well as by keyword. And any music selection can be quickly queued up for playback or added to a playlist simply by dragging them to the appropriate area on the screen. And to offer maximum flexibility, tracks can be added to or deleted from any playlist or from the “now playing” queue at any time the same way. All of this is accomplished by simply placing your fingers on your selection and dragging it to the appropriate place on the screen.

The Q100’s also offers a Fast Preview feature allows users to preview songs without interrupting the current playlist. When a song is selected for preview, the system interrupts the current song a few seconds before reverting back to the previously selected song/playlist.

To further enhance the user experience, the Qsonix playback engine includes Softfade, a patent pending technology that delivers professional user-controllable volume control and cross fading effects to allow customized segues from song to song. All transitions including music start, stop and track changes will fade in and out smoothly for an enhanced listening experience.

While the Q100 is new, the feedback from the pilot program has proven it to be a resounding success, both among installers and consumers. “Once our customers see our demo, it sells itself,” says Ray Earl, owner of Smart Systems Integrated of Atascadero, Calif. “As one customer told me, ‘Ray, this is worth the price of the whole system. I love it.'”

Mike Weaver is the president of Qsonix, a market innovator and leader in user-friendly digital media technologies. With its world-class user interface, Qsonix offers the most reliable and easy to use digital music management systems available, addressing a wide variety of lifestyles, tastes and environments. Consumers and businesses alike can quickly and easily store, organize and playback music without the hassle. For additional information please visit www.qsonix.com.