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.

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