Custom Channel Gets Media Center OS

Gates To Appear On Stage With 15 Builders To Launch New Version

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Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates will share the stage Tuesday with nearly 15 system builders in a program to officially launch Microsoft's latest version of its Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 operating system.

The event, to be held in Los Angeles at the Shrine Auditorium, the largest indoor theatre in the United States, will showcase an operating system that for the first time will be available to a wide range of custom system builders.

Unlike the first generation of the Media Center operating system, which was available to only five or six OEMs, or the second generation, which was available to about 30 OEMs, this version will be open to all system builders, said a Microsoft executive during a demonstration of the software to solution providers at a D&H Distributing channel event.

The new operating system is identical to Windows XP Pro except for the Media Center extensions and that it does not allow users to join as a domain name, preventing its use as a server, the executive said.

Jasbir Singh, assistant product manager at ABS Computer Technologies, which has a system building business in addition to its New Egg on-line retail operations, said he expects the launch of the new operating system to be big if for no other reason than Gates' presence on stage with the system builders.

"Anytime Microsoft launches something new, everybody wants to buy it and test it because it's new," Singh said. "Anytime Bill Gates introduces something, people will buy it."

Even more important for system builders, said Singh, the new operating system will help solution providers make a profitable and competitive offering once again in the desktop PC space.

"If you buy a Media Center PC, you'll want a top-of-the-line display or video card and so on," he said. "You won't put a cheap video card in a top-of-the-line system."

The Microsoft executive demonstrated how a single Microsoft-branded remote-control device could be used to start playing a CD that was ripped to a hard drive, adjust the volume, find a specific set of photos stored on the hard drive, start a slide show, modify the photos and launch a stored movie.

The remote control was then used to go online through a Microsoft portal where online partners provided such services as video-on-demand and the ability to download rented videos with full digital rights management.

The operating system allows a Media Center PC to come with up to two TV tuner cards and one HDTV tuner card with the ability to record programs and pause live TV. The Microsoft executive said the personal video recorder function currently lacks the ability to skip commercials during automatic recording, but hinted that such a capability has been demonstrated but not made available due to unspecified issues still in the process of being resolved.

Windows XP Media Center Edition also supports instant messaging and caller ID on the TV screen, as well as a radio tuner and the ability to run programs such as photo sharing and games over the remote control.

PCs with the operating system can be connected to Media Center Extender devices that allow all the functions to be remotely accessed in rooms other than where the PC is installed. The Microsoft executive also showed portable devices from companies such as Samsung and Creative Labs that allow content from the PCs to be downloaded for mobile use.

Not every solution provider is convinced Media Center PCs will make a big splash.

Landon Dirgo, co-owner of Digital Space Computers, said very small system builders might find it difficult to invest in promoting products aimed at the home theater space.

And even though Dirgo has a few customers with interest in Media Center PCs, it might be hard to convince others to give up their traditional home entertainment systems. "People like to see a 12,000-part audio rack," he said. "And many feel the PC cannot offer the same audio and video quality."

With the new operating system, smaller system builders will be able for the first time to compete in the digital home space with larger OEMs that, for various reasons, including immaturity of the operating system, were unable to capitalize on earlier versions, said Dan Schwab, vice president of marketing for D&H.

As home owners build more sophisticated entertainment systems, they will become dependent on help from their system builder, a value-add that larger OEMs cannot offer, Schwab said.

"If your kid can't do his homework, or your spouse can't access the bank account, or you can't watch TV in the bedroom upstairs, you need help. . . . Customers will need someone to come in and show them how to use the remote," he said.

For system builders, it is also the chance to move away from $499 PCs to $1,000-plus systems, Schwab said.

"You will see a whole new wave of PCs with Media Center," he said. "You will see a lot of guys go back to building systems themselves. And they won't just compete on price. They can differentiate themselves. . . . While [big OEMs] can build efficiently, they are not flexible. If ATI comes out with a new high-end video adapter on Monday, small system builders can offer it on Tuesday."

The Microsoft executive said the new operating system is available only for bundling with new systems and cannot be purchased separately to upgrade an existing system.

The official declined to discuss expected prices for Media Center PCs.

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