CES 2007: Release of Vista Consumer To Boost Media Center Sales, VARs Say

Vista Home Premium Edition and Vista Ultimate, the two versions of Vista that integrate Media Center functionality, are due to launch to the marketplace Jan. 30.

And its availability combined with the launch of Intel's first quad core desktop processors at CES 2007 essentially delivers the kind of high performance platform necessary to support high-definition TV and movies, the last mile before the marriage of the PC and TV can be consummated.

"The delay of Vista in 2006 dampened growth but in 2007 Media Center will skyrocket because of all the Vista buzz from Microsoft and Intel stepping up Viiv," said Frank DeFilipis, vice president of business development at Link Your House, Atlanta.

He and others point out that consumers are carrying around lots of digital photos and music files they cannot either download or backup and many don't even know about new video-on-demand technologies that allows end users to download shows from the ABC network or movies from Cinema Now.

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"It's a new business for us. The penetration and profile of Media Center has grown and the ecosystem that comes with it," DeFilipis added. "Home automation and control companies are wiring their platforms on media centers and that's a big change."

Microsoft and its OEM and integration partners expect strong uptake because of Media Center's tighter integration with the mainstream Windows OS, more elegant interface for organizing collections of photos, videos and music; support for high-definition video and cable cards, better integration with wireless networks and the ability to create and edit high definition DVDs.

The Redmond, Wash., software giant first launched Windows Media Center in 2002 but has seen little uptake to date, partners claim. Sales of Windows XP Media Center PCs increased to 6.5 million in 2006 from 1 million in 2005, according to Parks Associates, yet many channel partners believe consumers are not using the Media Center features.

That will change because this release finally supports the recording and downloading of HD video, considered vital for Microsoft to compete with Apple's much anticipated iTV and Google's video plans, digital integrators insist.

For example, Vista Media Center's support for CableCard and widespread availability of CableCard hardware is very significant, said Gerard Lynch, president of System Seven, a digital integrator in Newburyport, Mass. CableCard slots are now common on most new digital HDTVs.

"One thing holding back Media Center today is there is no way to record high definition content. Even with Tivo 2, you could not record HD but with Tivo 3, you can," Lynch added. "Now you can plug your CableCards into your Media Center and make your Vista PC a cable box."

System Seven expects the launch of Microsoft's Vista Home Premium to have a big impact on its business in 2007.

Microsoft is urging digital integrators and system builders to get into the game now if they haven't before.

At CES 2007, HP, Dell, Lenovo and system builders will highlight new Media Center PCs that support Vista Home Premium's new interface, high-definition support, near instant-on capabilities and showcase new form factors more hospitable for the living room.

X2, a system builder in Los Angeles, is debuting its new line of Vista Media Center PCs at CES 2007.

Vista's improved user interface, which exposes tighter integration between the operating system and core media functions, enhanced HD support, instant-on and power management features enabled X2 to develop a more attractive form factor for consumers than past Media Centers, one top executive said.

"We have systems that are more home entertainment focused and aimed at the living room. It looks more like a piece of stereo equipment than a PC," said X2 President Rex Wong. "Vista is more fully integrated so we were able to develop a system that is more cost effective and power effective. Before you had to wait a minute for it to restart and that's a lot faster now. That was a big problem in the past with running a PC for home entertainment."

Meanwhile, S1 Media will introduce two new Media Center PCs under its Pro Series line. The high end Server Model is a 3U rack mount media server with HD-DVD playback and multiple HDTV tuners. The new S1Digital "FX Model" Media Center is passively cooled and absolutely silent and will include up to 1 terabyte of storage and HD-DVD standard or Blu-ray as an option.

PA Computer Connections in Greenburg, Penn., has been making Media Centers for digital integrators for the past year-and-a-half and is preparing to launch its AVidius series based on Vista, said Nathan Hufford, a sales engineer for the company.

He sees the market growing but he is taking a wait-and-see attitude. "We get mixed reviews. The existing Media Center is a great and intuitive screen, easy to manage and work with," said Hufford. "we get mixed reviews on the new Vista interface with tiles, and some people dislike it because it's more complex."

Bill McDonnell, president of Business Technology Consulting, of San Jose, Calif., said Microsoft has been largely unsuccessful trying to make the PC a centerpiece of the living room but that may change as consumers demand new tools to manage their growing pile of digital content.

"Vista should continue to get better in reliability than XP and will offer more interfaces to digital devices and allow consumers to do more things," said McDonnell, who is expanding his technology practice to serve the home needs of his SMB customers. "Consumers are getting involved to the point where they need organize their photos and digital content or bad things will start happening."