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RealTime IT News

That's Microsoft Entertainment

Microsoft announced the formation of its Media/Entertainment & Technology Convergence Group, a move it says addresses the trepidation that industry executives have regarding the software company's history.

The company tapped Blair Westlake, former Universal Television Networks Group chairman, to head up the group as its corporate vice president.

"Microsoft, for a long time, has tried to position itself as a friend to the entertainment community, a tool developer that helps to make the transition to the digital world easier," said Steve Vonder Haar, founder and research director of Interactive Media Strategies. "There remain skeptics in the entertainment industry on whether Microsoft can be a fair broker on digital standards and devices."

Now is as good a time as any to make a big push into the industry with support for video and audio in a Digital Home, particularly one based on Microsoft's version.

The Digital Home concept is one where every electronic device in the house -- from the TV to the PC to the refrigerator -- is connected to the Internet. That's a tall order, especially given the dizzying array of standards used by each manufacturer and content owner.

According to Microsoft officials, 82 million households had a broadband Internet connection in 2003, and the company expects that number to rise to 200 million by 2006. That, along with its estimates of $63 billion in worldwide sales of DVDs, makes for an industry ready to take standards talks seriously.

To help craft their message, Microsoft officials announced they were expanding their relationship with Warren Lieberfarb of Lieberfarb & Associates. He's credited as the "Father of the DVD," according to a Newsweek magazine account, not for his role in inventing the technology but for his almost single-handed efforts in getting studio heads to sign off on the technology while chief at Warner Home Video.

Microsoft executives probably think the company's clout in the software industry, with its Windows OS running on more than 90 percent of the world's PCs (as well as efforts through Microsoft TV and Windows Media Center), make it a logical choice as standards and convergence shepherds. But they're walking softly and finding allies to help disseminate their message.

Vonder Haar said many in the industry still remember Microsoft's past actions in the PC industry of developing a presence in a device niche and becoming a toll-keeper for the software technology used. It's a criticism he said Microsoft acknowledges and is working hard to correct.

The hiring of a former TV executive is a good start, Vonder Haar said: "If you want to talk to the industry, having one of the industry's own on your side can't hurt those efforts."

There are signs consumers are waiting for the entertainment and electronics industries to get their act together before venturing into an Internet-enabled home. According to market research firm Ipsos, 72 percent of U.S. consumers are interested in products that easily connect their home entertainment systems to the Internet. However, those same people are worried about the difficulties and knowledge required to get them connected.

"At this early stage of the game, with so many brands and product variations, there is a risk that 'translation clutter' is confusing potential customers as to what the products actually do," said Todd Board, Ipsos senior vice president, in his report.