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Microsoft Extends Reach Of Windows Media Center

In an speech at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Wednesday night, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates unveiled the Windows Media Center Extender, a new software client designed to give Media Center PC users access to digital content from any room in their home, regardless of where their computer is located.

The new software, which runs on a set-top box or television display, accesses digital photos, movies, music and live or recorded TV programs residing on PCs running Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 multimedia operating system. It then lets users distribute the content to any TV display in their home. So instead of being tied to a PC to enjoy digital media, home users will be able to listen to music, record TV shows, watch photo slide shows and home videos or download on-demand movies to a display in one room, even while another family member is using the Media Center PC in a different room.

Plans call for Dell, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, Samsung Electronics, Alienware, Tatung, Wistron and other OEMs and original design manufacturers to work with Microsoft to develop set-top and television hardware for the Extender software by the 2004 holiday season, according to Microsoft. The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant also unveiled the Xbox Media Center Extender Kit, which combines an Xbox DVD title with a remote control to let consumers extend their Windows Media Center experience around the home using their Xbox game console.

"Windows Media Center is really the centerpiece of what we want to do in the home," Gates said in his speech.

The Extender software stems from earlier efforts by Microsoft to give the Windows Media Center platform a multiroom scope. At the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in New Orleans last May, the company demonstrated a prototype set-top box that could distribute digital media from a Media Center PC to any room in the home with a display. "What we used for the demo was a standard, set-top box reference design that integrated the Xilleon chip from ATI [Technologies]. And working with ATI, we developed some software that would allow that device, when plugged into a home network, to discover the Media Center PC and project its experience [onto other devices]," Dennis Flanagan, product unit manager in Microsoft's Windows Home Division, said last June in an interview with CRN.

With the release of Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 in late September, Microsoft also introduced the Media Center Edition 2004 Software Development Kit, which enables software developers and solution providers to customize the Windows Media Center platform by adding home automation and other specialized applications. Microsoft said Wednesday that more than 8,500 developers have downloaded the kit so far.

Leading consumer-electronics vendors also are working with Microsoft to develop Portable Media Center devices, which will enable users to remotely access and play digital content from their Windows XP computers. At CES, Microsoft said Gateway has been added to a list of Portable Media Center vendor partners that also includes Creative Labs, iRiver International, Samsung, Sanyo and ViewSonic. Digital entertainment companies such as CinemaNow and Napster also plan to support the Portable Media Center platform.

Gates said Windows Media Center and the Extender software reflect Microsoft's focus on "seamless computing experiences," in which the software company aims to work with other technology vendors and content providers to provide consumers with turnkey products and solutions that connect today's myriad digital devices and flood of digital content. He noted that broadband Internet access and services have skyrocketed, audio and video content is increasingly being put onto hard drives and CD/DVD media, 153 million households worldwide now have DVD players and 105 million digital cameras have been sold globally.

"The home is going digital," Gates said.

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