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Switched On: How Microsoft's Media Center Will Save Television


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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column that covers everything related to digital convergence, the connected home, and all those other multimedia buzzwords that marketers are tossing out these days. Last week he looked at the "thin data", today he talks about how Microsoft's Media Center Will Save Television:

Microsoft released the latest version of its Media Center software in the context of everything it's doing within entertainment media; the company emphasized music and video although nearly all of its products support photos as well. The 2005 edition of the not-ready-for-prime-time Windows XP front-end has a number of enhancements that range from easy photo cropping to limited support for high-definition TV.

To demonstrate its digital music prowess, Microsoft played a clip from its hometown success Modest Mouse. Rodents, however, were not the only modest creatures at the launch. The Windows wizards repeatedly noted that offering media flexibility was the result of many companies' efforts, but that smacks of regulatory posturing. Media Center PCs and their immediate supporting "ecosystem" may be expensive, immature, and not even wholly reliable, but Microsoft deserves credit for being the first company to put together a holistic media-distribution system in the home that mostly works on commodity components.

Media Center PCs and a couple of Media Center Extenders may seem expensive compared to the new Dell desktop that you paid $53 for after combining all of your coupon codes, but they can cost tens of thousands less than professionally installed comparable systems that rely on time-tested if less glamorous cabling systems or proprietary protocols. Furthermore, with Microsoft now supporting �white box� system manufacturers, the price of no-frills Media Center PCs will soon drop below $1,000.

Windows Media Center ExtenderMuch of the credit for the flexibility of Microsoft�s digital home strategy belongs to the Media Center Extenders, the $300 tails that wag the $2,000 dog. While still overpriced for what they offer, Media Center Extenders allow consumers to experience much of Media Center�s functionality while running the actual operating system on a boring desktop PC tucked away in the basement. Alternatively, you can purchase an HP Digital Entertainment Center - the best implementation of a living room PC to date - and keep all of your media local to your television, potentially reducing or eliminating the serious bandwidth challenges of transmitting video over a wireless network.

You can even take the shows on the road via the Portable Media Centers being produced by Microsoft partners Creative, Samsung, and iRiver. Compared to other portable video devices, these products come up short in features, but they certainly round out Microsoft�s digital media strategy.

Flexibility and features are why, when compared with other alternatives, it seems like Microsoft has the best chance of providing the balance between TV functionality that meets consumer expectations and the credibility to win support from broadcasters and cable companies (the real �TV companies�) with digital rights management.

TiVo is probably the only other company that comes close, but it remains on a quest to add value to justify its monthly subscription rate as digital video recording becomes a commodity feature. TiVo-based devices get the nod in terms of ease of use, but it is hard to envision TiVo winning the feature war with Microsoft, especially now that Microsoft is encouraging more third-party services. For example, the company�s much-ballyhooed partnership with NetFlix - which encourages those stuck with one monthly subscription to maximize it by getting another � stands to essentially provide the same functionality that is available on a Media Center PC with CinemaNow, and its broadband programming could be simply another plug-in on Media Center.

Then, of course, there are the cable DVRs, which galumphed into the market seven years after TiVo and Replay pioneered the core technology. The Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8000 used by TimeWarner Cable today lacks the ability to search for a program and requires you to sift through multiple program instances as well as irrelevant music channels just to record a show not readily on the grid. At some point, it may gain the ability to send television wirelessly to other units, integrate music and photos from your PC, and offload video to a portable device. However, for many of today�s cable subscribers, these features will yield considerably less benefit because by then they will be dead.

Media Center is a take-it-or-leave-it option and most consumers will leave it for the foreseeable future, perhaps long enough for Microsoft to integrate it into Longhorn and once again rationalize Windows configurations. Indeed, Microsoft�s best chances for the TV domination it so craves is to establish embedded versions of its operating systems into set-top boxes that are slaves to the whims of Comcast and others. For those who want to maximize television�s potential usage, though, Media Center seems like TV�s great slight hope.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at
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