January 27, 2004 12:05 PM PST

Windows sequel gets set to entertain

Microsoft plans to start testing a new version of its Windows XP Media Center edition, a customized operating system designed for entertainment-oriented PCs.

The software, code-named Symphony, is likely to make its way later this year onto new entertainment-oriented PCs, according to analysts. Microsoft recently sent a request seeking beta testers to put an early version of Symphony through its paces.

"We are starting out (with) some initial beta testing," Megan Kidd, a product manager for Microsoft's eHome division, told CNET News.com. Kidd declined to say when the software would be made available.

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What's new:
Microsoft is ready to start testing a new version of Windows XP Media Center edition, code-named Symphony, a customized operating system designed for entertainment features on PCs.

Bottom line:
Analysts expect Media Center to play an increasingly central role in Microsoft's consumer PC efforts as computer makers seek gains in the consumer electronics segment by coming out with more entertainment-oriented PCs.

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Media Center and Tablet PC, the other customized version of Windows XP, are taking on added importance for Microsoft, which is still years away from shipping the next major release of Windows, code-named Longhorn. The company has said it plans this year to bring out a new version of its Tablet PC software, code-named Lonestar.

By contrast, the mainstay editions of Windows XP are only due for a service pack this year, adding security enhancements and other modest changes.

Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg said that he expects Media Center to play an increasingly central role in Microsoft's consumer PC efforts. "In the next 18 months some variant of the Windows Media Center OS is going to become the consumer OS," Gartenberg said.

Media Center includes all the features of Windows XP, but adds a second interface that can be navigated by remote control, for doing tasks like playing music, viewing digital pictures and pausing or recording TV shows.

When Microsoft first released the product, only HP and Samsung had PCs running the software. Since then the software has expanded to laptops, and other big-name makers, such as Toshiba, Sony and Dell, have added the OS to their products.

The cost difference between Media Center PCs and standard desktop computers has been shrinking, with some of the entertainment PCs having entered the sub-$1,000 market. The devices are also coming in a broader array of shapes and sizes, as well as from more PC makers.

Testing of Symphony comes not long after Microsoft released its predecessor, the Windows XP Media Center 2004 release that was announced last September. The first version made its debut in late 2002.

The tests also come at a time when PC makers are eager to boost the entertainment features in their products. Gateway, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and others have been making forays into the consumer electronics world, aiming to use their PCs as a hub for all manners of other digital gear.

With Symphony, Microsoft is expected to add support for new hardware products that will allow Media Center owners to take their content throughout the home as well as on the go.

"What we're hearing is Media Center is great, but (customers are saying) 'I would love to be able to access that content anywhere in the home," Kidd said

A class of products dubbed Media Center extenders will allow a television to access content over a wireless network from a Media Center PC elsewhere in the home. Microsoft also is enabling customers to take their music, movies and photos with them through new handheld devices, to be known as Portable Media Centers. Both types of products are expected in time for this year's holiday selling season.

"Those devices now create a very powerful ecosystem for consumer content, in the home, throughout the home and on the road," Gartenberg said, noting that Microsoft is actually offering more flexibility than the consumer electronics devices, such as TiVo.

Content on many digital video recorders is fixed to that device, he said, while Media Centers are capable of recording that content to a DVD. It is also easier to add hard drive space with a PC, he said.

It is not clear what other new features Microsoft will add with Symphony, though Gartenberg said he expects the company to continue trying to make the operating system act more like a consumer electronics device than a PC. The first version of the OS was 80 percent PC and 20 percent consumer electronics. With last year's update, it was more like 50-50. This time around, Gartenberg said that Microsoft is likely to tip the balance further toward the consumer electronics side.

One of the hurdles the company faces, he said, is trying to get all of these products on the market this year--the new OS, the portable devices and the extenders. Gartenberg said that Microsoft not only has to work with hardware makers but also with several different divisions within the company. "Lots of pieces and parts of Microsoft are going to have to work together," he said. "It's all got to hit around the same time."

In addition, Microsoft faces some issues that are beyond its control, Gartenberg said. For example, shuttling all that content around the home requires a fairly sophisticated home, with either a wired Ethernet network or a fast wireless connection. Kidd said that while the extender technology can work with both 802.11g and the older 802.11b standards, "probably most likely you'll want 'g'."

In addition, Microsoft faces a balance as it tries to decide how many things to add with each release of Media Center.

"It's a fine line between adding too much functionality where it becomes confusing," she said. "You want to add enough where you make it useful."

 

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