Microsoft aims high with Media Center update

Striving to reignite interest in Windows XP, Microsoft on Tuesday is slated to unveil the latest version of its Windows XP Media Center Edition operating system.

At a launch event in Los Angeles, Microsoft will position Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 as its best operating system for consumers. The company is set to announce that it has sold over 1 million copies of the product to date and that it expects to sell at least 19 million more by 2007.

"Media Center 2005 is going to catapult the operating system much more to a mainstream status," said Dave Fester, general manager of Microsoft's Windows Consumer group. "If you look at the massive interest and demand by consumers for digital entertainment in music, photos, TV, this is the version of Windows you want."

Microsoft's is aiming high with its projections for Media Center, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst with The Enderle Group. "They are basically saying that a third of consumer machines will be a Media Center of the next few years. I think that is probably aggressive," he said.

The update to Windows XP Media Center Edition, code-named Symphony, has been in beta testing since early this year. The update includes a host of new features, including support for two TV tuners, DVD burning, over-the-air high-definition television and satellite in addition to cable TV. The software also offers improved support for mobile devices and a refreshed user interface.

A key new feature is support for wireless technology and in particular Media Center Extender, a new technology that lets users wirelessly connect up to five TVs to the Media Center PC. Also, users can now exchange MSN instant messages through their TV and remotely program their Media Center 2005 system through a service offered by MSN.

Microsoft has hosted events in September or October for the past two years to introduce new Media Center products for the December shopping season. In 2002, the software maker announced the first version of Windows XP Media Center Edition, followed by an update, Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004, last year.

With the 2005 version, Windows XP Media Center is finally a finished product, said Enderle. "This is a significant step. Last year's product was interesting, but this year's product feels mature and where we go from here will be minor enhancements."

Windows XP Media Center Edition is a premium version of Windows XP, designed to make the PC the media and entertainment hub for the home. In addition to traditional PC tasks, the system can serve music, pictures, video and live television to portable devices, stereos and TVs while also enforcing digital rights set by content owners. Users can access the Media Center PC with a remote control through a special user interface on their TV.

Along with the release of the updated Media Center operating system, Microsoft and hardware makers are set to announce the first devices that use Media Center Extender technology, new Media Center PCs and new digital audio receivers for an audio-only experience.

For example, Hewlett-Packard plans to announce four new Media Center PCs, a Media Center Extender and two products dubbed Digital Entertainment Centers that look like standard consumer electronics hardware such as VCRs or DVD players instead of PCs. Dell also will announce new systems that run the updated Microsoft operating system.

The Media Center unveiling will also be combined with the introduction of new portable media players from vendors including Creative Technology and Samsung Electronics. Additionally, Microsoft on Tuesday plans to announce Windows Media Player 10 Mobile for Windows-based cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs). The software turns these devices into portable media players that will work with Media Center PCs, allowing users to take content with them.

Windows Media Player 10 Mobile also includes support for Microsoft's new "Janus" DRM (digital rights management) technology, which allows subscribers to online music services that support the technology to download vast music collections. The software will ship on many devices, starting with a new smart phone from Audiovox and a new Axim X50 PDA from Dell. Existing devices can be upgraded, but users will have to get an upgrade from the device maker, according to Microsoft.

Also for portable devices, Microsoft is introducing a new logo program called "Plays for Sure." The logo will appear on media players and online music and video services to indicate interoperability. "When consumers see a device that has the Plays for Sure logo or a music or video service that has the logo, you can guarantee interoperability between those devices and services," Microsoft's Fester said.

As part of the consumer-focused announcements, Microsoft on Tuesday will officially launch its MSN Music store in the U.S. and a similar service in eight other countries through a partnership with Loudeye. The download service will be available in the U.S., Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Netherlands, Spain, Austria and Switzerland.

The MSN Music Store, Microsoft's response to Apple Computer's iTunes, is also available through Windows XP Media Center's TV interface, along with dozens of other online services that provide music, movies, radio and other content.

Windows XP Media Center 2005 is the centerpiece of a Microsoft marketing effort to revive interest in the 3-year-old Windows XP operating system. Without a brand new version of Windows scheduled until Longhorn in 2006, Microsoft is betting XP Media Center 2005 will move consumers to buy new PCs.

Media Center PCs cost more than plain Windows XP Home machines, with price tags from around US$900 to over $1,999 for the more expensive systems. In an effort to make Media Center PCs more affordable, Microsoft has relaxed the hardware requirements for the systems: a TV tuner card and remote control are no longer required.

However, buyers of a dressed down system without a TV card or remote will likely upgrade their systems to be able to get the full Media Center experience, analyst Enderle said.

To expand the availability of Media Center, Microsoft is now making it available to the system builder channel. Previously the operating system was the exclusive domain of mostly large, multinational PC makers. Now white box makers -- PC stores that sell systems without a brand name -- are also able to build and sell Media Center PCs.

"We're making it affordable for the masses," Microsoft's Fester said.

Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is available on PCs from many vendors. Users of the 2004 version may be able to upgrade, but need to contact their hardware supplier for information, according to Microsoft.

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