Windows learns to play nicely

Seeking to stake out a place in the digital home, Microsoft is unveiling a plan to better integrate PCs with popular consumer electronics devices such as TVs and digital audio players.

Microsoft's integration initiatives include upgraded Windows audio drivers; a new protocol to transfer digital media between PCs and media players; a prototype for a Media Center TV client that can play content recorded on a Media Center PC; and technology to make it easier for networked media players to access content anywhere on the network.

The announcements are being made at the annual Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) here this week, which revs into full gear Tuesday morning with a keynote speech by Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman.

Easier Entertainment

"Microsoft is trying to move its set of technologies more into the mainstream of consumer electronics, specifically entertainment," said IDC analyst Roger Kay.

The goal is to make it easier for consumers to enjoy their digital media with a minimum of hassle, said Dennis Flannigan, product unit manager for Microsoft's EHome division.

The Universal Audio Architecture initiative, for example, will include drivers for audio equipment hooked up via either USB or FireWire (IEEE 1394). Right now, vendors have to write their own drivers, which can be expensive and tricky.

The Universal Audio Architecture also supports Intel's Azalia next-generation audio specification, the first significant upgrade of baseline PC audio since Intel released its AC'97 spec six years ago.

Flannigan says Universal Audio Architecture will both improve the audio experience for consumers and reduce the cost of developing audio devices for hardware manufacturers.

Transferring Tunes

Microsoft is also announcing its plans for a Media Transfer Protocol intended to simplify setup, media transfers, and management between PCs and MTP-compatible players. MPT would be part of Windows (likely as a Windows Update download), so devices supporting MTP wouldn't require installation of special software to move content to and from a PC.

Just as Windows Image Acquisition technology provided a standard for seamless transfer of digital images from a camera to a PC, MTP supports transfer of all types of digital media; Microsoft says it will handle music, video, and digital image files.

In a related development, Flannigan said Microsoft is also working on extensions to HighMAT, a storage technology it codeveloped with Panasonic. HighMAT (High-performance Media Access Technology) specifies both a storage structure for media and a means of accessing and playing it. If widely adopted, it too should simplify the enjoyment of media.

Tune In Your TV

The Media Center TV client is designed to extend the reach of Windows XP Media Center PCs. The client software would give users access, from anywhere in the home, to content stored on the media center PC. By attaching a Media Center TV client to a TV in the kitchen, you could play video or music stored on a Media Center PC in the den--presumably streamed over a wireless connection.

Microsoft is also developing content directory services software intended to make it simpler to access digital media from any device on a home network. The software, to be based on Universal Plug and Play Forum A/V Working Group specifications, will allow networked devices to detect and play compatible content stored on a networked PC.

From a technological standpoint, Microsoft's plans make sense, IDC's Kay said. They eliminate the need for a hodgepodge of software and drivers now required to enjoy digital media, he said.

But, he added, "You can also look at it negatively and say that it's an attempt to bring all that plumbing that makes the stuff work into the operating system." Some vendors may prefer not to have Microsoft in charge of digital media standards, he noted.

"But I do think that standardization and integration is generally a technical good, although it may not be a business good," Kay said.

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