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Gadgets Galore To Make Home Entertaining

Gibson's view of a stand-alone music system that hides technology from consumers -- much as traditional stereos do -- contrasts with the vision that computer industry leaders have of high-powered PCs helping people manage digital entertainment libraries. Microsoft, in particular, is working to simplify its software menus for recording and playing TV shows and music.

Asian electronics companies, meanwhile, are rolling out simple machines like the Wurlitzer, and products that attempt to bridge analog and digital media. Typical is Samsung Corp.'s box that records TV shows on either DVDs or VHS tapes and transfers media between the two.

Gibson Audio chief technical officer Philip Usatine shows off the Wurlitzer Digital Jukebox at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. (Leslie Walker - The Washington Post)

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This rivalry for control of home entertainment has been brewing for a long time but is intensifying as wireless home networks go mainstream. At least 22 million American homes have broadband Internet access now, and most use wireless or Ethernet networks to share Internet connections among several computers.

Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp. sense an opportunity to extend the PC's influence. Intel calls 2004 the year of the "digital home" and is pushing the notion that it can help different devices communicate using technology standards it developed with partners. Intel says it will promote the company's "unify" theme -- an attempt to make devices made by computer companies compatible with those made by other consumer electronics firms -- as hard this year as it pushed wireless networking last year. Intel is creating a $200 million venture capital fund to invest in digital home start-ups. The chipmaker also is announcing a new type of semiconductor that it intends to use to enter the market for big-screen television sets, which analysts believe will push down prices for large-screen displays.

Microsoft's strategy is built around computers running its Windows Media Center software, which offers TiVo-like TV recording capability and an operating system with simple menus for recording and playing back libraries of TV shows and songs.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates introduced modest improvements to the Media Center suite in a speech last night, centered on his theme of creating "seamless computing" environments. For example, Microsoft announced plans yesterday for "extender" devices that will allow content stored on Media Center computers to be used elsewhere in the house. The first extenders will let people display TV programs stored on a Media Center's hard drive on television sets in other rooms via wireless signals. Microsoft said extenders will be available by the end of the year and are likely to sell for $300 to $600.

He also announced that a half-dozen companies will make pocket-sized "portable media centers" that will let people take recorded TV shows and movies on the go.

Gates, however, doesn't have a great track record at meeting release dates. Two years ago he touted a technology named Mira for remotely accessing home computers that never took off. Last year at the Consumer Electronics Show, here, he announced that an FM radio networking technology called SPOT, which would beam data alerts to wristwatches, would go on sale by fall 2003. The watches didn't get to stores until this week, at prices ranging from $129 to $300. They require a monthly subscription service, MSN Direct, available through Microsoft's MSN Internet service.

Also yesterday, Microsoft announced a significant strategic shift for MSN: free, ad-supported video aimed at broadband Internet users. Gates and NBC-TV's Jay Leno took the stage to promote MSN.com as the place for broadband users to watch free video clips from NBC, the Discovery Channel and other sources.

The free video is in part an attempt to make MSN more attractive to broadband Internet users. It also reflects an attempt to compete with RealNetworks Inc., the leader in selling online video subscriptions. RealNetworks recently sued Microsoft, claiming that Gates's company is unfairly leveraging its operating-system monopoly to require users to favor its own media player over rivals such as RealNetworks'.

RealNetworks yesterday announced that it, too, is making more free video clips available to users of its new RealPlayer 10 music and video player. RealNetworks also introduced an online music store to compete with Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes and other similar services. Microsoft is developing an online music store but won't say when it will open.

As tempting as all these devices and services may seem, consumers may be better off holding onto their wallets until computer makers strike a truce in their battle with consumer electronics giants.

Leslie Walker's e-mail address is walkerl@washpost.com.


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