October 8, 2004
SAN JOSE, Calif. - Efforts by Microsoft Corp. and the PC industry to expand into to the living room will get a boost next week 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.
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.
This time, the stars may be aligning for success: Hollywood is opening its vaults of songs and movies to digital distribution. The hardware is better and cheaper. And new software makes using an entertainment PC as easy as clicking a remote control.
The high-performance computer systems being unveiled next week promise to serve music, pictures, video and live television to stereos, TV sets and other displays.
Depending on the setup, the PCs also can support high-definition digital TV, multiple analog TV streams, radio and other content.
They also will allow sharing over home networks and with portable devices.
"Consumers don't want to be tethered down to a specific place in the home where they have to enjoy their content," said Rebecca Brown, Intel's consumer desktop marketing manager.
But it remains to be seen how easy it will be to use devices that incorporate the new technologies - particularly as they juggle user friendliness with Hollywood's determination to prevent unauthorized copying of intellectual property.
"You can put a lot of things down in words and on paper," said Phil Leigh, senior analyst at Inside Digital Media. "But the devil is in the details - and whether or not it's a successful product or a Frankenstein."
At the forefront of Microsoft's announcement will be Windows Media Center Edition 2005, an update to an existing variation of Windows XP Professional that includes software for playing or recording video, music and other media from a distance using a remote control.
Since the Media Center was introduced in 2002, Microsoft has been trying to supplant the home stereo center, incorporating the functions of a DVD player, digital VCR, stereo and TV into a single PC.
But the first generations suffered from some annoying quirks that reminded users they were still using PCs. There were times, for instance, that users were left reaching for a keyboard to clear an error message.
To burn a song to a CD, people had to use software that also wasn't designed to be managed with a remote control. And TV picture quality also wasn't up to snuff.
The new version, code-named Symphony, is expected to address many of those concerns. Microsoft declined to comment on any of the announcements.
Through computer specifications disclosed by PC vendors and announcements from hardware makers and others, however, it's clear the software giant will be incorporating such long-awaited features as support for two TV tuners so a live program can be watched while another is recorded.
Media Centers also are expected to feature better picture quality by using high-end chips designed for TV.
Last month, graphics chip maker ATI Technologies Inc. unveiled a processor that incorporates a high-quality video decoder as well as other technology typically found in high-end TVs.
The quality also will be improved by Intel Corp.'s latest chip sets, which support faster data transfer within the computer, making it less likely that the picture will stutter due to a digital bottleneck.
The same chip sets also feature built-in, surround-sound audio.
Microsoft's Media Center also is expected to support high-definition digital TV, at least what's available over the airwaves, according to unnamed sources quoted by CNET technology news.
In fact, ATI now offers a $199 standalone add-on card that can be added to any higher-end PC.
Microsoft also is expected to show off two technologies first announced by Chairman Bill Gates last January at the Consumer Electronics Show and promised to be available before the end of 2004.
One of them, Media Center Extender, can transfer content from a Media Center PC to a TV or other display anywhere in the home. In January, Microsoft said the device would be available from a "select set" of hardware partners, including Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Samsung.
Content would be accessed through a Media Center interface that displays on a TV screen. Up to five instances of the Media Center can be run at the same time, according to Microsoft's announcement in January. Microsoft also said it would ship a kit for its XBox game console.