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Opening the Living Room Windows

By Cynthia L. Webb
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2004; 9:42 AM

Microsoft is going to Tinseltown today to announce plans for its revamped Windows XP Media Center, part of an aggressive push to get ahead in the digital entertainment race.

Just how important is it to the software giant to turn a PC into a music, movie and entertainment hub? None other than Chairman Bill Gates is expected to make the announcement, which will preview of the Redmond, Wash.-based company's strategy to use spruced-up software to transform personal computers into powerful entertainment machines capable of replacing even the ubiquitous television set.

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"Gates will unveil a new version of the Windows XP Media Center, software that combined with specially configured personal computers from dozens of manufacturers, turns the PC into a photo album, jukebox, DVD player and, most important, a TV set with a built-in recorder. The first two editions of the software have been slow to gain acceptance in the market, representing about 3 percent of home computers sold. But, Microsoft hopes to turn that around with the latest version, which will add a few features and improve the technical quality of the television picture and the video recorder; both at times have been spotty," the New York Times reported yesterday, in advance of the announcement. "Several manufacturers, including Linksys, a unit of Cisco Systems, and Hewlett-Packard, are expected to introduce versions of a product Microsoft announced last January called the Media Center Extender, a device that allows a television signal to be sent from a Media Center computer to a television in another room, by way of a wireless network. And perhaps most significant, some of the new Media Center computers will have prices below $1,000, about half that of the first models. Still, it is an open question whether people want to watch television on their computers."

The Associated Press provided an advance report of Microsoft's plans last week: "Efforts by Microsoft Corp. and the PC industry to expand into to the living room will get a boost ... as they show off technologies that try to balance Hollywood's piracy fears with the appeal of digital media. In Los Angeles, Microsoft is expected to unveil Windows Media Center Edition 2005 for entertainment computers as well as other software and gadgets that seek to simplify sharing video and music while enforcing copyrights. Separately but not coincidentally, Intel Corp. will be in New York showing off prototypes for entertainment PCs. [See my June column on the topic.] The industry is touting such systems as the best example yet of the PC's convergence with couch-centric diversions - a goal that has so far proven elusive despite repeated attempts," the wire service reported.
New York Times: Microsoft's Latest Plan for TV (Registration required)
Associated Press via washingtonpost.com: Microsoft Looks to Expand Windows at Home (Registration required)

USA Today noted that Microsoft is a latecomer to the digital entertainment wars. But no matter: "As usual, Microsoft is neither the first, nor the most innovative contender in an emerging market. But analysts say it is the most dogged, and can rely on the highest-visibility pitchman in the business." At the Shrine Auditorium, site of the Emmy Awards ceremony, "Gates will promote the notion that hordes of consumers are eager to lean back on their living room sofas, grab the remote and play back their digital photos, music and videos on a high-definition TV. This is the third fall Microsoft has orchestrated a pre-holiday publicity blitz to pitch Windows Media Center PCs. It is striving to get consumers -- most of whom already own PCs for e-mailing and Web browsing -- to spring for a pricey new machine souped up to drive their home entertainment systems," the newspaper said. "The task at hand for Gates this week: rev up excitement for Media Center PCs, projected by research firm IDC to account for 550,000 of the 177 million PCs shipped this year."

The British tech site, the Register, said, "Microsoft will announce the final version of its Windows Media 10 software today when it launches Windows XP Media Center 2005. Central to the announcement is Windows Media Player 10, which integrates MS' latest DRM technology, 'Janus', and, in a bid to appear to be nice to rivals, will include links to other online music stores based on WM 10, not just MS' own, in the player's 'Digital Media Mall.'" More from USA Today: "Others share parts of Gates's vision. Chipmaker Intel has spent millions the past two years sponsoring research to help mass-produce quieter PCs that fit in sleeker cabinets more suitable for the living room. And it has driven development of 'media extenders,' including the Windows version Gates will unveil today."
USA Today: Gates to Unveil Media Center PCs
The Register: MS to Launch Final Windows Media Player 10 Today

Microsoft's digital entertainment push today will be watched closely by rival Apple Computer, which has seen its stock soar this past year on the popularity of its iPod digital music player. "Microsoft's new offensive in the digital music industry will seek to significantly alter the competitive landscape in a new market that until now has largely been dominated by [the] powerful combination of the iPod portable music player and the iTunes Music Store," Forbes.com wrote today. "Among the many companies announcing PCs running the new Windows XP Media Center operating system to be unveiled today, Hewlett-Packard will stand out by offering an option of its version of the software that bridges at least part of the gap between Apple's online music service and others like Microsoft's. HP recently began selling its own version of Apple's iPod. Microsoft's new software will also include a final public release of Microsoft's MSN Music service, the latest rival to [iTunes], which will be built into Windows Media 10 software, and will also integrate access to other music stores, including Roxio's Napster."

Dow Jones Newswires has more details on HP's ties to Microsoft's announcement today, reporting that HP will showcase three new PCs that will run the updated Media Center software. "HP says the new machines deliver on a vision Chief Executive Carly Fiorina laid out last month during a speech in Florida, where she discussed the opportunities for HP in digital entertainment. Two of the machines will look less like PCs and more like DVD players, standing about four inches high with black, brush-aluminum cases. The third, more traditional PC -- the Media Center m1100 Series Photosmart PC -- will still run Media Center Edition 2005. HP also will introduce the Media Center Extender x5400, which will allow videos, music and photos stored on a Media Center PC to be shown on other devices throughout the home."
Forbes.com: Microsoft Ups Ante Vs. iTunes
Dow Jones Newswires via the Wall Street Journal: HP to Unveil 3 PCs Featuring Microsoft Media Center Product (Subscription required)

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer said Microsoft's media blitz today is part of its overall strategy to boost sales of its flagship software: "Along with earlier releases of a new Windows Media Player, an online music store, and stronger security features, the announcements are part of a broader Microsoft effort to freshen Windows XP and related programs. The current version of the operating system, released in late 2001, isn't expected to be replaced with a new one for another two years," the paper said. "The overarching initiative is known inside Microsoft as 'Windows XP Reloaded,' said Jim Allchin, Microsoft's group vice president for platforms, in a conversation with Seattle-area reporters earlier this year. Allchin described it as an effort to enhance the operating system's capabilities and do a better job of marketing them to consumers."
Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Microsoft Notebook: Gates Preps to Pitch 'XP Reloaded'

An Early Review

The blogosphere is already abuzz with advance reviews of the latest Media Center version. A post on techie site Slashdot.org links to Thomas Hawk's blog, which gives considerable attention to Microsoft's new software move and opines regularly on digital entertainment issues. In a post last week titled: "Microsoft Media Center 2005 ... Underwhelmed," Hawk wrote: "OK ... so to start with, how can Media Center 2005 NOT have HDTV capability for satellite and cable receivers? What the hell? TiVo announces back in January 2003 and delivers earlier this year and MCE has an opportunity to do a major release on their product and it doesn't include HDTV support? Something is seriously amiss in Redmond. Although the product allegedly will support the ATI HDTV Wonder card it is my understanding that this card only supports OTA (over the air) HDTV broadcasts."

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