The first CableCard-ready Windows Vista Media Center PCs have begun trickling into the market, but it will be some time before broad licensing is available to system builders.
CableCard enables consumers to view and record high-definition premium content such as HBO and ESPN on their TVs and PCs without a set-top box or personal video recorder.
Following an accord signed by Microsoft and Cable Television Labs in November 2005, a handful of specialized OEMs, including Niveus Media, ZT Systems, Velocity Micro and S1Digital, have been authorized to build and sell next-generation CableCard-ready Media Center PCs based on Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate.
Niveus, Milpitas, Calif., started shipping its Ranier and Denali CableCard-ready Windows Vista Media Centers in mid-April. The home entertainment systems are passively cooled and based on dual-core processors. Prices start at $3,199 and $7,999, respectively.
ZT Systems, Secaucus, N.J, this month expects to begin shipping its Affinity Home Theater PCs.
Velocity Micro, Richmond, Va., also plans to ship its CableCard-ready CineMagix Grand Theater Entertainment System in mid-June.
Also in June, system builder S1 Digital, New York, plans to ship its ProLine and Home Series Media Centers with CableCard.
For Microsoft, Redmond, Wash., CableCard technology provides a powerful incentive for consumers to buy its Media Center platform, which has been built directly into Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate. The technology also allows PC, TV vendors and consumer-electronics manufacturers to take a big leap into the lucrative content delivery world.
And as the first Digital Cable Ready Vista Media Centers hit the market, VARs and digital integrators look forward to a more compelling and integrated home entertainment system to sell to consumers.
"This is the first time that we will be able to offer distributed high-definition home entertainment systems," said Gordon Van Zuiden, president of Cybermanor, San Francisco, which plans to begin deploying Niveus systems within a month's time.
But not all channel partners are happy. Several of Microsoft's system builders say the CableCard licensing is far too restrictive and favors a select group of OEMs. "It costs several hundred thousand dollars to do the certification process as it is currently defined. This locks out everyone but the Dells and [Hewlett-Packards] of the world," said one system builder and VAR who requested anonymity.
Microsoft, for its part, said it has agreements in place with Advanced Micro Devices' ATI and Cable Labs that limits the number of licensees in order to keep a tight rein on quality control. Only OEMs that have direct relationships with Microsoft are eligible, and very few PC builders will be authorized initially, Microsoft said.
"Many system builders want access to CableCard and we'd love for them to have it, but we have agreements and we can't make it broadly available," said John Ball, general manager of U.S. Local OEM business at Microsoft, who said that CableCard systems are more complex to build. "We are looking at how we'll make the technology more broadly available and we're looking at a range of options internally," Ball said.