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Switched On: Media centers engender extenders, relenters


Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

A few weeks ago, HP announced that it was ending development of its Digital Entertainment Center line of A/V component form factor PCs. Normally, even a major manufacturer dropping a line of PCs wouldn't be cause for much industry introspection, but the continued struggle of the computer in the living room illustrates the challenges Microsoft has had in expanding the PC beyond its staples of desktops and notebooks, and why it may be increasingly turning inward to approaching new hardware markets.

Before the great unification of Windows Vista, Microsoft created two forked, hardware-specific versions for Windows XP -- Tablet Edition and Media Center Edition. Both found their way onto millions of computers, but neither achieved Microsoft's most ambitious goals. Per its name, Tablet Edition was to usher in a new wave of ultrathin devices free of keyboards that would be positioned as the next wave of notebooks.

However, to the extent that the operating system was adopted, it was primarily retrofitted onto "convertible" notebooks with swivel screens, making some of these "tablets" only slightly more sleek than the props carried by Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. Undaunted, Microsoft has now decided that these devices should be half the height of those Tablet PCs, but its latest foray against the keyboard is driving backlash.

Media Center Edition, in fact, had two phases. The first phase covered the basic "ten-foot" user interface paradigm that Apple has adopted with its own Front Row software. I call this the "dorm room" scenario, well-suited to students who require a PC and live in a small space for a relatively short time. Ten-foot user interfaces are bound to become more popular in kids' and teens' bedrooms as a new generation increasingly turns to the PC as the source of nearly all digital media. For now, though, their usage opportunity is limited. As both Apple and Microsoft clearly realize, consumers want to enjoy their TV on, well, a TV.

And so came Microsoft's second phase of Media Center, which was aimed at bridging the living room gap in two ways -- establishing links via thin clients called Media Center Extenders, and ushering in a new class of PCs designed to fit in with standard A/V components. The former had initial support of HP and Dell, offering a box made by Linksys, but Extenders failed in the market due to the expense required in making the devices work, as well as the limited bandwidth of wireless home networks.

Always tenacious, Microsoft gave the Media Center Extender another berth by embedding a new version of it into the Xbox 360, a version exclusive to its own hardware. The subsidized nature of video games enabled Microsoft to fulfill one of the Xbox's longstanding strategic objectives -- providing a Trojan horse into the living room for digital media. And should the Xbox 360 Elite take off, the console will have more than enough storage to integrate the kind of "sync and store" architecture that Apple has used to differentiate Apple TV from other digital media adapters. One open question is whether Microsoft will license a new generation of third-party Media Center Extenders that are compatible with Windows Vista, as the original ones are not. Zune stands as Microsoft's most tangible example of frustration with third-party digital media execution.

In any case, while the Xbox 360 has driven the installed base of Media Center an extension, the demise of the HP Digital Entertainment Center comes just a few months after Vista ushered in a new version of the user interface that offered better high-definition cable support. HP becomes the second major PC company after pioneer Gateway (which preceded the advent of Media Center with its Destination PC / TV combinations in the late '90s) to abandon the component form factor. While boutiques such as Niveus Media drive the state of the art with this technology, the only major manufacturer left is Sony; in fact, A/V component form factor PCs are the only "desktops" the electronics giant offers. (Alenware, now owned by Dell, has also flirted with the form factor although it isn't currently featured on its Web site.)

HP is far from giving up on the living room. Its MediaSmart televisions can stream PC content or access it directly from the Internet. And while the offering is better integrated than Apple TV or an Xbox 360, it's a pretty thin client that doesn't take advantage of Media Center Extender technology.

Rich clients can do more than aggregate the functionality of standalone consumer electronics or compete against the now commoditized cable DVR. They can transcend what is becoming an increasingly diverse and complex entertainment experience. But with Apple, HP, and now even Microsoft making more headway with non-PC hardware in the living room, it looks like it's time for Microsoft -- or an enterprising competitor -- to rethink the A/V PC.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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