Media servers are a fast-growing category. Digital market research firm Parks Associates predicts that unit growth will go from about 800,000 units in 2010 to nearly five million in unit sales by 2014. Comprehensive home media experiences will help differentiate builders’ products, and manufacturers are responding.

The latest update to Crestron Electronics’ ADMS Intermedia content delivery and home entertainment system includes Netflix support and an enhanced Internet TV experience, including the addition of Hulu movie access. Builders can offer ADMS as a self-updating proposition: The latest version of the ADMS system will now check for updated Internet channel guides every night.

Kaleidescape’s new M500 and M300 players, which support 1080p video with 24 fps and bitstream pass-through of Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, can access more than 3,300 Blu-ray titles through its proprietary Movie Guide on-screen interface. It finesses the copy control software issue with a disc tray loader for copying content from the disc onto one of Kaleidescape’s servers. (Copy protection compliance issues compelled AMX to leave the media server market earlier this year.)

Looking two or more years ahead, however, will likely see hardware-based media server systems migrating to cloud-based models. Autonomic Controls’ new Mirage system asserts that it will be the first such media server. However, a move into the clouds will inevitably include participants such as Apple and Google. Sometime in the next two to four years, Apple is expected to launch a new cloud-centric version of its thus far minimally successful Apple TV, with content sourced from its new data center in Maiden, N.C.

It seems the long-term outlook calls for less hardware and less cabling overall. But as content audio expands to 7.1, 9.2, and beyond, you’ll need more speakers.