RealTime IT News

Microsoft Gets Hip With Digital Entertainment Suite

Microsoft's ambitious aim to turn Windows XP into a full-fledged digital entertainment system took another step forward Tuesday when the company unveiled the Microsoft Plus Digital Media Edition and final versions of the popular MovieMaker and Windows Media Player (WMP) software.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant announced the Plus Digital Media Edition would hit stores on January 7, targeting users looking for a suite of non-technical tools and toys for editing digital images, video, music and portability.

The new software, priced at $19.95, is the first complete Microsoft product to be offered as a download via online retailers. To lure digital media enthusiasts, the company is offering a Web-based price cut. On the same day, the final versions of Microsoft's Windows Media Player 9 Series and Windows Movie Maker 2 will be released.

While the new software has all the makings of a consumer hit, Microsoft product manager Gabriel Knapp told internetnews.com the Plus Digital Media Edition could be targeted towards the real estate, construction or mobile workforces that depend on photography-display to enhance their businesses.

For instance, Knapp said, a real estate agent could use the photo editing and display suite to create "an entertaining slide show" for buyers interested in a particular property. Likewise, a construction manager on site can update his bosses on progress at a work site. "This is not entirely a consumer product. It has an audience among enterprises," Knapp said.

Knapp, who performed a demo on the new software suite, said the idea was to make it exciting for users to interact with digital content by adding voice-overs, background music and text scrolling to regular still images on a PC. And, with digital cameras and digital video recorders becoming a staple in U.S households, Knapp believes consumers and small businesses will provide a key market for the latest offerings.

Plus Digital Media Edition is fitted with four categories -- Photo Story, Party Mode, Audio Converter, Plus! Dancer and Sync-and-Go. The software suite is only available on the Windows XP operating system.

In demos for internetnews.com, Knapp said Photo Story works like a digital photo album creation tool that allows users to add narration, music, zooming and panning to existing .JPG images. It's built to run on top of the WMP9 player, which has been fitted with image codecs to ensure the finished digital slideshow can be emailed without loss of image quality.

Like the sister MovieMaker software, which already ships with XP, Plus Digital Media Edition has been fitted with jazzy effects, text-titles and transitions. Another snazzy addition to the new entertainment suite is Party Mode, a feature that adds security to a jukebox that can be uses to set playlists, add visual effects and song title/artist display. The security feature general users to edit the playlists and scrolling marquee without getting access to the PC.

To tap into the market for portability of digital content, Microsoft has added Sync & Go for Pocket PC where users can shuttle content ranging from music and news automatically to Pocket PC-powered PDA handhelds. Knapp said content from Microsoft-owned MSNBC would be the preferred content providers although customers can choose from sources ranging from CBS MarketWatch, GolfSpan.com, Indy Racing League, OverDrive or Warner Music Group.

Additionally, Sync & Go lets users shuttle digital files from desktops and automatically sync the content onto their Pocket PC.

Also new in Plus Digital Media Edition is an Analog Recorder which allows users to split older vinyl records or cassette tapes into tracks and reducing hisses and pops from the sound. Like regular digital entertainment software, it has been fitted with a CD label maker and file conversion tools for audio.

Because the new tools run exclusively on Windows XP, Jupiter Research senior analyst Michael Gartenberg believes it will help push consumer adoption of the operating system. "The Plus package is a nice addition of features that at low cost adds some significant functionality to a Windows PC," Gartenberg said.

"With a low price point, even if consumers use only one or two features, they are getting their money's worth and it increases the overall value of the PC proposition (and the XP platform)," he added.

Microsoft, which is battling for market share in the digital media space with Seattle-based RealNetworks , also plans a January 7 final release for Movie Maker 2 for Windows XP, a home video creation tool.

The software, which was released in beta last month, is an upgrade that comes with built-in support for Windows Media Video 9 compression. A free product as part of the XP license, MovieMaker 2 can automatically grab video from a camcorder, edit and analyze clips and create a short home movie, complete with music and credit, Knapp explained.

The software lets users store in native resolution the equivalent of 15 one-hour DV tapes in just 10 GB of hard drive space - 1/20th the size of DV-AVI and supports high-speed FireWire connections. A new feature is AutoMovie, which turns home movie-making into a five-minute job with drag-and-drop functionality and built-in video effects, transitions, background music and titles and credits.

Microsoft's final version WMP9, with upgrades to earlier beta releases, will also be available early next year. The final player includes a Media Link tool to let users e-mail shortcuts to highlights from streamed news, presentations and home movies. It also comes with HighM.A.T. CD-burning and synchronized lyrics support for viewing or adding lyrics to music files that can be displayed in Now Playing and Full Screen modes.