Microsoft Stretches Reach of Digital Entertainment

Updated: The company bolsters its strategy-to provide "music, videos, digital content anywhere you go"-by releasing Windows XP Media Center 2005, along with a Media Center Expander Device t

LOS ANGELES—Microsoft formally unveiled its "Digital Entertainment Anywhere" strategy here on Tuesday, part of the companys plan to manage multimedia content at home, on the road and in portable devices.

As expected, the linchpin of the announcement was Windows XP Media Center 2005, together with a Media Center Expander Device that will push a homes digital content out through a wired or wireless network. In addition, the "top six" PC OEMs announced that they would back the new software with their own hardware, complete with support for multiple tuners and HDTV (high-definition TV) content.

Finally, Microsoft launched "Windows Marketplace," a portal site to allow consumers to purchase digital hardware and software for their new PCs.

Microsoft also highlighted recent launches of Windows Media Player 10 and MSN Music, both designed to allow consumers to purchase, manage and play back music.

Microsoft will exclusively offer selected content and tracks from artists such as AC/DC on the new service, company executives said. Windows Media Player is now shipping in a new phone from Audiovox, available from AT&T.

"Whats the vision for digital entertainment anywhere? To have music, videos, digital content anywhere you go," Bill Gates told a large audience at the Shrine Auditorium here.

Microsoft has struggled to make the vision work, Gates acknowledged, especially in the area of video quality. To date, Microsoft has shipped just a million units of the Media Center software, which he called a "very significant number." Now that the company is taking the technology "mainstream," Gates said, Microsoft plans to sell four or five times that amount. However, Gates did not say when.

Consumers have complained previously that the devices arent simple enough to set up and configure. To help streamline the process, Microsoft has established a "Plays for Sure" program to make sure that devices interoperate. Microsoft officials said the program is similar to the companys WHQL (Windows Hardware Quality Laboratories), which place Microsofts stamp of approval on individual components and their drivers. "We want to give you a choice, but we want to make sure you know what will play," Gates said.


Are we a long way from having digital homes? Read one columnists views.

In an interview, Joe Belfiore, general manager of the Windows Media Center program, said consumers will likely buy a desktop PC for their home or den, and then one of the new Media Center Extenders for their living room, which will allow them to interact with their saved multimedia content. By years end, he said, OEMs should be shipping streamlined Media Center hardware for about $600.

That will place them about on par with a dedicated PVR from a cable and satellite provider, Belfiore said, minus the monthly fees and with additional functionality. "We absolutely have the opinion that no single solution is best for all people, he said. At the outset, the Windows Media Center software will not be sold at retail, he said, although that hasnt prevented some resellers from trying to sell OEM versions of the software to consumers. Microsoft views the Media Center software as just another edition of the Windows XP line, along with the Professional and Home versions. As of now, Microsoft will keep the relationship between the core Windows release and Media Center the same as far as Microsofts next-generation "Longhorn" OS is concerned, Belfiore said. Although the various releases have not been determined, "I think well do the same approach with Longhorn," Belfiore said.

Next page: Will "rule of three" apply to Media Center?