January 9, 2003 5:35 PM PST
Microsoft's Media Center gets compatible
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At the Consumer Electronics Show,
the theme is tech anywhere, anytime.
Until now, people could generally only play such DVDs on PCs or players supporting Microsoft file formats--a restriction that chafed many users.
"The discs that come out on the other end (when using the new tools) are as fully compliant as discs can be," Sonic CEO Bob Doris said. "They are standard DVD video, which can be played on any standard DVD player."
Novato, Calif.-based Sonic unveiled the new tools on Thursday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Microsoft introduced its Windows XP Media Center Edition OS, then code-named Freestyle, at last year's CES. The variation of the software behemoth's flagship operating system is designed to create a hybrid of sorts between a PC and various home-entertainment devices. It adds TV viewing and a digital video recorder (DVR) for copying programs to a PC's hard drive and offers a second user interface for accessing digital media features such as music or movies using a remote control.
During the summer, consumers rapped Microsoft for using an encryption mechanism that would have restricted TV shows recorded via Media Center to one PC, partly to placate entertainment companies.
"Microsoft has had a long-term strategic goal of getting cozy with Hollywood. But to get cozy with Hollywood, you have to protect their content," IDC analyst Roger Kay said. "It's ironic because Microsoft was originally about guerilla computing...letting everyone do it their own way."
Microsoft later scrapped the restriction, but the change did not mean recorded programs burned to DVDs would be compatible with all PCs or consumer DVD players. Generally only PCs or consumer players supporting Windows Media formats could play DVDs with programs recorded on Windows Media Center PCs.
The two Sonic programs largely wipe out the compatibility problem, the company said. The new version of MyDVD is a variation of Sonic's DVD authoring software. Existing users of MyDVD 4 can update their software to version 4.04, which supports the new Windows Media Center capabilities.
"The aim is to minimize the amount of confusion among consumers, who don't know much about video formats," Sonic's Doris said. "Basically, MyDVD decides if the files are in the right format and does any conversion that is necessary. The conversion is a standard MPEG-2 format." MPEG-2 is a widely adopted, industry-standard format for recording video. The format is also used on Hollywood movie DVDs.
There is a caveat however. MyDVD for Windows XP Media Center Edition records to the two most popular DVD recording formats: DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW. But compatibility is not 100 percent, as some older consumer players cannot read the discs. Anywhere from 85 percent to 90 percent of players support both formats though.
"This does create more flexibility with Media Center," IDC's Kay said. "This actually allows you to move it off Media Center, which is a good thing, and it is in the spirit of fair use laws."
PrimeTime also will record the shows to DVDs, but from within the Media Center User interface, which can be accessed by remote control.
"PrimeTime essentially takes the Sonic script engine and places it underneath the Media Center Edition 10-foot interface," Doris said. "Besides having all the usual buttons you have on the Media Center interface, you have a new button, which is 'Make a DVD.'"
NPDTechworld analyst Stephen Baker praised the feature but questioned whether broadcasters would appreciate it.
"The easier you make it to burn my TV shows, the more nervous I'm going to be," Baker said. "One-button nervous is very convenient."
PrimeTime is scheduled for March release. But Sonic also has lined up some computer manufacturers to include the software with Windows Media Center PCs, CEO Doris said.
Doris said he sees much potential in the Windows Media Center concept. Microsoft and its PC partners initially are targeting college students and young urbanites, people living in cramped spaces needing a home entertainment and computing convergence device.
"The PrimeTime thing brings across what we are really hot on here at Sonic: this convergence thing between the living room with the home office or den," Doris said.
Ultimately, the ability to burn compatible DVDs of recorded programming is an important step forward for Windows Media Center, NPDTechworld's Baker said.
"Microsoft wants to make Media Center a controller for your entertainment," Baker said. "This is another part of how they're going to take advantage of that.
"Television is an important of the digital hub-slash-entertainment strategy," Baker added. "You have to make the personal video recording and DVD part of that."