microsoft takes on consumer electronics giants


microsoft’s new – and seemingly much more cuddly – operating platform is finally coming to the UK and Europe. Set to launch at the end of September and demonstrated to Tech Digest at microsoft’s Soho offices, Media Center 2004’s USP is that its entertainment content (music, video and analogue TV tuner) can be controlled via its accompanying remote control handset.

For users though its headline facility is likely to be the way it enables them to record TV programmes in the same way as PVRs (Personal Video Recorders) like Sky+ or TiVo. It’s also much easier to produce digital image and music compilations than with the standard Windows XP platform.

Explains David Weeks, e-Home Marketing Manager: “Media Center isn’t going head to head with today’s PCs. We want to extend capability to expand the digital entertainment experience.”

Several companies are backing the UK launch of the new operating platform with Media Center PCs promised from Centerprise International, CFL Media Systems, Elonex, Evesham Technology, Hi-Grade Computers, HP, Hugh Symons Group, iQon Technologies, MESH Computers, Packard Bell, PC World, Quantum mîcroponents, Sony, Time Group, Toshiba and Yakumo. Though precise models and prices haven’t been announced yet, each will feature an infra-red remote control and at least an 80Gb hard

How it works

To access entertainment features, users will have to press a green button on the centre of the handset which will take them through to a list of entertainment options, such as My Pictures, My Video and My Radio. A two-week Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) from Broadcasting Data Systems (BDS) provides onscreen TV listings in an easy-to-read grid format while a red record button on the handset enables one touch recording of favourite programmes. If the button is pressed twice this activates the series link which automatically records all the episodes of a particular programme. Users can search for TV programmes in the listings using a keyword or by genre (ie. Sport) or sub-genre (football). It’s expected that most PC manufacturers will initially provide an analogue TV tuner, although several are considering digital terrestrial TV tuners (DVB-T) for the near future.

For those using Media Center to store/edit JPEG images there’s red eye removal and contrast adjustment while for audio there’s a Windows Media Player 9 based music software which supports MP3 as well as microsoft’s own Windows Media Player format. In addition, Media Center PCs will incorporate FM radio tuners as standard. Most PC manufacturers will also provide a CD and DVD burner for recording analogue/digital music and TV programmes.

Hit or miss?

Launched last year in the US – albeit in a slightly different format – microsoft’s Media Center has attracted a much older audience than initially expected. “Our research shows that the average age of the buyer in the US 41,” says David Weeks. This may because Media Center PCs have tended to be a little more expensive than standard PCs, retailing for the equivalent of a £1000 upwards.

Media Center has certainly added value, and upped the price of PCs, in a market that had become extremely cost-conscious. The tricky part for microsoft though is that the software was initially positioned as a one-stop entertainment system for tech-savvy youngsters and students. Prices will need to drop before it can muscle in on that key market. It is surely not a coincidence that many of the companies marketing Media Center PCs in Europe, like Time and Packard Bell have traditionally majored on value for money computers.

In spite of the success of the Windows XP platform, microsoft could certainly do with a hit as several of its recent products have failed to capture the imagination of consumers. Sales of its laptop replacement Tablet PCs have been limited, while its Smart Display intelligent monitor systems have barely registered in Europe at all.

The long term plan for Media Center surely rests on it being groomed as a potential server for a home entertainment network, streaming video and audio to various devices and screens throughout the home. This puts it up against consumer electronics companies like Sony, Philips and Panasonic who are all developing home server systems, some using set top boxes others integrating computer technology into TVs.

Another potential problem is that Bill Gates has already hinted that the second version of Media Center (almost certainly with integrated wireless/streaming facilities) will be unveiled at CES in Las Vegas in January 2004. This may put off consumers on this side of the Atlantic from investing in the edition of Media Center launched next month.

Media Center is sure to attract its fair share of early adopters. We won’t probably fully realise where microsoft intends to take the technology for some while though.

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  • Non omnia possumus omnes – Not all of us are able to do all things (We can’t all do everything.) (Virgil)

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