RealTime IT News

Microsoft Renews Play for Digital Home

Microsoft's newest digital entertainment campaign got some play today, as the company announced its latest move into your home on the back of Windows XP Media Center 2005.

During a launch party in Los Angeles, Chairman Bill Gates rolled out the software giant's vision, which highlights the operating system previously code-named Symphony. The platform is designed to connect PCs, high-definition televisions, Xbox, smartphones and other consumer devices. This way, customers can download, share, store and enjoy multimedia content whenever they want, no matter where they are.

Today's launch comes on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the music industry's effort to revive a controversial practice that briefly forced ISPs to reveal the identities of thousands of accused peer-to-peer (P2P) music pirates with no notice to the alleged infringers.

The launch also comes at a time when the company is in the process of complying with the final judgment in its landmark U.S. antitrust case.

Analysts say Windows XP Media Center 2005 is Microsoft's most aggressive and most comprehensive attempt at tackling the growing trend toward home networking. The company has tried twice before to make a contribution to the so-called "digital home."

Microsoft enhanced the strategy with the completion of its Windows Media Player 10. Windows Media Digital Rights Management 10 and its High-Definition Multimedia Interface backbone power the core piece of its Windows XP Media Center. The technology is Microsoft's attempt to address Hollywood's concerns about copyright protection as improved digital formats move beyond DVD to the next level of resolution.

The company's first launch of its core Media Center offering in 2002 received lukewarm reviews. The second was an upgrade to the system. This time around, Microsoft is tying in its infrastructure partners.

"Partners are really the core of Microsoft's success and often they can be the central part of their failure, as well," Rob Enderle, founder of analyst firm Enderle Group, told internetnews.com. "This time you finally begin to see the pieces come together. There are Microsoft Mobile Devices from companies like Dell tied into the solution, as well as Portable Media Centers and MP3 players from Creative Labs, Samsung, iRiver and Virgin Electronics."

The hardware partnerships are expected to result in a Media Center PC that dips below the $1,000 per unit mark, making them more affordable. Market research firm IDC defines that category as a PC with a full-function OS with a TV tuner and an optional 10-foot interface. Their analysts are projecting some 20 million entertainment PCs will ship in 2008.

Microsoft is highlighting several Media Center PCs from OEMs like Dell, Gateway, HP, Sony and Toshiba. The units are running on either an Intel Pentium 4 with its Grantsdale chipset or AMD's Athlon 64 with Enhanced Virus Protection (EVP) capabilities.

"The entertainment PC is really the most exciting development in desktops in a long time," Roger Kay, IDC vice president, told internetnews.com. "Much is going on in notebooks, but desktops have been pretty ho-hum for a while. If [Microsoft] manages to deliver a delightful experience -- not just an adequate one where the user has to forgive a bunch of minor flaws -- with a full and cooperating ecosystem of partners and a killer price, then the market is theirs."

IDC's Kay also points out if the category gets tainted by poor experiences, then users will turn to the alternatives, which right now include mainly TiVo and the existing living room consumer electronics. Kay also said down the road, the field could include Apple , which "knows about delight and ecosystem, if not price," he said.

Microsoft is hoping to leapfrog that problem with the help of new Media Center Extenders, which Gates first illustrated at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. The devices from HP and Linksys, as well as Windows Media Connect devices from D-Link Systems, Omnifi and Roku, are all designed to connect high-definition televisions, set-top boxes and Microsoft Xbox to the central Media Center.

And it's not just hardware partners that Microsoft has tapped into. Gates also announced more than 30 online music, video and television services, including MSN Music, Napster, XM Satellite Radio, Audible.com, Major League Baseball, Music Match, Cinema Now, Reuters News channel and even Apple (care of HP). Gates also announced the official availability of MSN Music Service with 1 million licensed tracks as a competitor to Apple's iTunes Music Store.

Gates also unveiled a variety of portable music players as well as the first two Windows Mobile-based devices that come equipped with Windows Media Player 10 Mobile: the Audiovox SMT5600 Smartphone from AT&T Wireless and the Dell Axim X50 Pocket PC.

Microsoft said it has also worked with its content partners on a new "PlaysForSure" logo that lets consumers know which devices and music services work together. The program is debuting with products from Rio, Creative Labs, iRiver and more, as well as content services from MSN Music, Napster, MusicNow and CinemaNow.

Microsoft said it will travel to select cities as part of a new "Windows on Wheels" tour, which lets customers test out the software.