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The Future of the Media Center PC

The midst of the Consumer Electronics Show is the perfect time to ponder why the media center PC will be the must-have product of 2004.

Both Apple and Microsoft have been outspoken on their belief that the PC will be the center of the new digital home. So far, all Apple has done is bring out the iPod and a few applications while, in 2002 Microsoft created a special platform to occupy that center space–the Windows XP Media Center Edition. At MacWorld, Apple substantially improved their offering by bringing out a new smaller iPod while, based on its announcements at CES, blew the doors off the segment by answering with a vengeance the question, "What is the PC the center of, exactly?"

The Distributed Multi-Media Problem

Before we talk about Microsoft’s solution, let’s explore the problem. A PC is just a PC unless it links to other products that make use of this capability. It became clear early on that the concept of one PC for every TV or stereo system wasn’t going to fly, both because the solution was too complex and because it was way too expensive.

Peripheral devices connected to the media center really only need to showcase the content on top of what ever primary function the device has.

The shipping devices that come closest to this in terms of hardware are the networked home music and video players (including TiVo 2, and the Gateway Connected DVD player) which pull content off of the PC. The problem with these devices to date is that they are relatively difficult to set up, have unique user interfaces, and (as a class, and again, to date) only TiVo has effectively addressed the software update problem.

While these initial devices were interesting exercises it has been clear for some time that what the market wanted was something that approached the ease of set up of a telephone, had a user interface that was both intuitive and, once learned, would apply to all similar products in the space, and would provide a compelling experience (so people would want to buy them). The ease of use part is incredibly important because people simply don’t want to be computer technicians to watch TV, play movies, or listen to music.

It would also help if these devices were tied to some kind of service and had high-definition capability to address the varied and growing needs of an audience hungry for content to put on their new plasma and LCD HD ready sets.

In the end, a total solution would span devices that ranged from personal players to automotive music systems, experiences from movies to game playing, and services ranging from entertainment to communications. In short, it has to encompass what is an incredibly diverse group of potential customers and be configurable to the needs of most of them to be broadly successful.

Microsoft’s Media Center Platform
Microsoft has a number of properties that, in hindsight, make sense when it comes to this future integrated multimedia solution. The center of this offering, initially, is the media center PC. It provides the centralized host to which all of the peripherals connect, and from which they get most of their multimedia content. This centralized PC not only is capable of playing this content but of serving it up to the wide variety of clients (including other household PCs) that may need to gain access to it.

To do this effectively it will have to morph, over time, from a desktop system into a server because, increasingly, that is exactly the roll it will have. It is also clear to me that a home will be much happier if little "Johnny" can’t wipe out a critical recorded TV program because he messed with some of the software or settings. The design closest to what this server product is likely to look like is the new Gateway FMC-901 Family Room Media Center because this device has multi-media functionality but isn’t targeted at personal use.

For the peripherals you would want the least expensive products you could find. Ideally something subsidized with rich video and audio capabilities.
Gaming systems fit the bill on all counts, and Microsoft has the XBox. The XBox Media Center Extender Kit makes the XBox part of the media center solution and turns it, due to cost and capability, into the most common universal client device.

Some people are nervous about gaming systems proliferating throughout the house. For them Microsoft is announcing set top boxes that will, in a more limited fashion, allow you to distribute your digital media. The set top box part of the initiative is called the Windows Media Center Extender Technology and devices with this capability should start around $100.

For those who don’t like the idea and complexity of even a set top box there will be some vendors will be using the Windows Media Center Extender technology to enhance their TVs. This will allow you to simply plug in a new TV and immediately have similar capability to the set top box without having to install that box. This leverages the new ATI chipset for TVs and only adds $30 to the cost of the set.

Finally there is what I still believe will be the hottest product for the holiday season in 2004, the portable media center. This product will synchronize with the media center PC and allow you to take your content with you. Think of this as an iPod that will play your recorded TV programs and downloaded movies on top of MP3s. You can even take the thing to work and, rather then describing a funny TV moment, actually show it to co-workers.
Think of it as boredom insurance. Adding video game capability in a future version seems both necessary and likely so stay tuned.

One strong enhancement to the media center PC platform is Windows media high-definition videos. This ads high definition capability to the device for those who want to really showcase the HDTV they have bought.

Two pieces that are left out that can be added later (because they are part of Microsoft’s existing portfolio) are an automotive component that would allow to you move this content into the car (Microsoft has an automotive division), and seamless wired and wireless networking (Microsoft actually sells Microsoft brand home networking hardware). Expect these to be rolled into the solution soon.

We didn’t spend any time on the service, but if you look at MSN and the wide variety of partners currently supporting the media center platform (from Ofoto to ESPN), you’ll get a sense for what the service is likely to be and we’ll chat about this again before year end, I promise.

A couple of problems still need to be resolved. TV programming increasingly comes to the home via unique devices like satellite boxes and digital cable set top boxes and they will need to be better integrated into the solution than they currently are. Also the selection of downloaded movies on demand leave much to be desired today and this will need to improve dramatically to make the solution reach its full potential.

Overall, this is the most comprehensive attack ever on the wallet of the technology-aware home consumer. It remains one of the clear reasons why my wife will be keeping my credit card under lock and key next holiday season.


Rob Enderle heads the Enderle Group as principal analyst, focusing on emerging personal technologies.

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