Microsoft To Roll Out Windows Media Center OS To System Builders


Microsoft plans to roll out its Windows XP Media Center Edition operating system to the system builder channel next month.

The move would mark the first time that the multimedia OS was made available to custom system builders. Plans call for Windows XP Media Center to be available in 13 global markets--including the United States--in August, with a Partner Readiness Kit due for release this fall, Microsoft said Monday at its Worldwide Partner Conference in Toronto.

To date, Microsoft has made the Windows Media Center software available only to licensed OEMs, such as Dell, Sony and Hewlett-Packard. By offering the platform to the white-box channel, the Redmond, Wash., software giant is hoping that system builders design innovative, home media systems in time for the holiday season. Several system builders--including PC Club, Micro Standard, Able and Advantec--are demonstrating Windows Media Center-based PCs at the Microsoft partner event this week.
The move is aimed at promoting a new class of high-end home media entertainment systems in time for the holiday season.

The announcement drew a cheer from a group of system builders at the partner conference. "We've seen growth in Media Center and Tablet PCs. We recognized we could take that further if we directly engage the system-builder channel," said Will Poole, senior vice president of the Windows Client Business. Partners will be instrumental in adding value to the increasingly commoditized Windows OS platform, he noted.

A Partner Support Kit, also unveiled at the event, includes components and peripherals that system builders will need to create a home entertainment systems, such as a tuner card, a remote control and an infrared device. Microsoft has worked with hardware partners ATI Technologies and Nvidia in that effort.

Microsoft introduced the first version of Windows Media Center Edition, code-named Freestyle, in 2002. The first upgrade, developed under the code name Harmony, was released this year as Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004. Industry observers say Microsoft is working on the next-generation version, code-named Symphony, due for release this fall. Microsoft executives declined to comment on the next-gen offering.

Microsoft has been warming up to OEM partners. This fall, the company plans to launch another competency for hardware partners, dubbed OEM Hardware Competency. In addition, the vendor aims to boost the head count of its system-builder channel staff, and it's mulling other notebook PC incentives aimed at system builders, executives told CRN recently.

System builders can get innovative systems into the marketplace faster than large OEMs, which have product pipelines and other manufacturing constraints, said Kurt Kolb, general manager of system builder marketing at Microsoft. "System builders offer the most leading-edge technology first because they don't have manufacturing pipelines they have to adhere to," Kolb said. "They'll have innovative form factors you won't see on retail shelves."

According to Microsoft, system builders make up about 20 percent of its overall partner base. More than 45 percent of those white-box makers build systems for the small- and midsize-business market, and 9 percent target enterprise customers. What's more, an increasing number of those system builders--between 20 percent and 25 percent--are targeting consumers, company executives said.

Feedback from system builders nudged Microsoft to open up its Windows Media Center distribution strategy, said Margo Day, vice president of the company's U.S. partner group. "Given how important the consumer market is for system builders, they look forward to have this product available," Day said. "System builders see tremendous potential."