Apple might not have a big presence at Comdex, the behemoth computer trade show that brings more than a hundred thousand computer professionals to Las Vegas every year, but that didn't stop Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller from participating in a panel discussion entitled Great Debate: Who Will Own the Digital Nerve Center of the Home?

The session, chaired by Creative Strategies Research's Tim Bajarin, also included Microsoft's Michael Toutonghi, vice president and distinguished engineer, Microsoft Windows eHome Division, as well as Camilo Martino, senior vice president of Zoran.

Schiller opened the forum with an overview of technologies that are old-hat to Mac users, but seemed to surprise a number of the PC users in the crowd of more than a hundred attendees. Describing the house as the centre of the Digital Hub (and the digital hub as central to Mac's focus) he talked briefly about the "i" applications, touching on the ease of use of integrated programs such as iPhoto, iTunes, iMovie, and the newest addition, iSync.

Far from a technology demonstration – all of Schiller's presentation materials were of the "Jobs keynote" variety made up of PowerPoint slides with the trademark black background and large white lettering – Schiller could only briefly hint at the Mac's consistent integration and focus on the digital hub.

This is now Of the digital hub strategy and Apple's hardware and software synthesis Schiller said, "This isn't the future. This isn't the 'wouldn't it be nice one day if,' this is now. This is what millions of Mac users do. The personal computer has already won the place to manager your contacts, the personal computer has already won the place to manage your photos."

Turning to Rendezvous he described a scenario where he and his son could share music across the house simply by using a Rendezvous-enabled version of iTunes and described a world in which computers could auto-configure devices over any IP network with zero configuration. Against the backdrop of the word "Zero" emblazoned in white across the presentation screen he added "The user doesn't have to set up IP addresses or point at anything."

Limited in time, Schiller mentioned that more than 50 companies are working with Rendezvous currently, and that the technology is poised to have an impact on the face of Mac computing.

Session moderator Tim Bajarin then turned it over to Microsoft's Michael Toutonghi after saying, "I'd like to point out that the digital hub was really started with Steve Job's keynote a few years ago, and companies really took that as a way to go."

PC is the place Toutonghi launched into an overview of Microsoft's recently released Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition after saying "while it's great to hear of the success of the iPod, it's clear that the PC is the place for people's music."

Toutonghi pointed out that studies indicate that 30 per cent of all PCs are installed in a shared living environment. "In addition to reasons like space constraints," said Toutonghi "people want to bring the PC more into the centre of their lifestyles. When we talk about the digital home it's not about one device. It's about bringing together different devices or technologies. Whether it's Rendezvous or UPnP, technologies that have existed for three years and are on hundreds of devices. One of the interesting data points here is that 71 per cent of the networks that people have installed over the last year, they are installing for personal use."

Toutonghi detailed some of the features of XP Media Center Edition, describing them as "the best of what you'd expect from a PC ... and a whole new dimension." Toutonghi talked a bit about video-recording capabilities, live TV display, and "this year we've announced an evolution that's taken the PC in other directions," as an obvious nod to the company's newly introduced TabletPC lines.

"So the next step is to bring this all together," concluded Toutonghi. "We believe the key for consumers is not going to be connecting a bunch of devices and having a bunch of experiences, we believe it's a seamless way to plug in devices and have a consistent experience."

DVD is it In a strange twist on the digital home conversation the discussion was then turned over to Camilo Martino, Senior Vice President of Zoran. Zoran produces chips for DVD devices, and Martino's view of the future includes a "Zbox" DVD player that has a supped up open source interface, networking capabilities, and the ability for the consumer to edit video.

Apple and Microsoft's speakers seemed a bit bemused by Martino's contention that the DVD player, thanks to its wide-scale distribution potential, would form the focal point of a range of digital home products. Martino pointed to studies that show that DVDs have the potential to replace the installed VHS units installed in 94 per cent of all houses within the next few years, making them the ideal platform for everything from gaming to video creation.

"The key challenges here are software, how open the OS is, and how easy it is for companies to develop this. And connectivity is an issue. We're facing the same challenges that the PC faced 10, 20 years ago, but we can get there much faster. Consumers like making simple decisions. They like making simple choices. Set top boxes are complicated," said Martino, adding that he's not sure how many people can edit video.

Toilet humour "I respectfully disagree," said Schiller when given time to comment. "I don't think we're going to be editing our video on our DVD player." Both Schiller and Toutonghi seemed to agree on the place of the PC in the future of the digital home, and cast doubt on the future of "Zbox."

"I already know how many people are doing it," commented Schiller on the ability of consumers to edit video. "We have millions of people who already are ... 95 percent of houses have a toilet, but just because I have one doesn't mean I'm going to edit my movies on one."

Panelists and moderator alike agreed that the future of the digital home is only starting to take shape, with changes in technologies over the next few years allowing for a level of connectedness and simplicity that isn't possible ... yet.