How MS plans to put the PC at the heart of your home

It's already become a game player, stereo, and VCR. Now the PC wants to take over your TV, too. Well, that's Microsoft's latest vision, says David Coursey. But will it succeed?

LAS VEGAS--It's too early to tell how Microsoft will fare in its attempt to make personal computers the hub of a digital home, but I like what I've seen so far. Microsoft, which introduced a collection of new Windows XP "experiences" code-named Freestyle, and a new, wireless, tablet-like PC named Mira at the Consumer Electronics Show here, seems to be moving slowly, pushing consumers only as far as they appear ready to go.

This step-by-step approach, which we've already seen in Windows's support for audio and photography, takes things power users are already doing and makes them accessible to the masses. In some cases, it does this in a way that angers other companies, such as RealNetworks and Kodak, which see Microsoft as invading their turf. But as far as users like you and me are concerned, the overall effect is positive.

FREESTYLE BUILDS on the current digital photography, home video, and music features of Windows XP. It would, by way of example, make it possible for you to use your PC to record and play back TV shows, just as the new generation of digital video recorders does (see screenshot, below).

For its part, the Mira is a portable unit that would allow you to access your PC, your TV, or your game player from any place you please.

By adding support for such a remote control device and creating a new user interface intended for use with the remote and at a distance from the PC, Microsoft is extending the PC's reach from the desktop to the couch or easy chair across the room. Microsoft believes people would like to play their PC music, watch movies, or view photographs while sitting someplace other than in front of the keyboard.

Not everyone will want to do this, of course, and even those who do won't want to do it on all their machines. But Microsoft seems to be on a path toward making these features a universal part of the operating system, available on all XP boxes. I am expecting--and pushing Microsoft to offer--a collection of free XP updates that will make these features available to all users as quickly as possible.

FreestyleWHILE THE NEW Freestyle feature for recording and playing back television programs may not be attractive to many users right now, it will be soon. I expect that, by next Christmas, most mid- to high-level consumer PCs will come equipped with a TV tuner (and remote control). Customers who want to upgrade would be able to buy add-ons for their current machines.

This video support puts Windows XP into direct competition with stand-alone devices from TiVo, Replay, Dish Networks, and even Microsoft's own UltimateTV. Perhaps tellingly, Microsoft has committed to offering its TV program guide free of charge. TiVo and UltimateTV customers have to pay for this information.

For the record, Microsoft is not expecting many XP home users to immediately connect their PCs to their music systems and TV sets, just because these new features appear. Real integration of the PC into the home entertainment environment will come later, perhaps as devices based on Microsoft's newly announced Windows CE.Net operating system begin to arrive this summer.

Or maybe not. We are inevitably headed to a time when the now-disparate components of your home entertainment complex--TVs, DVDs, DVRs, VCRs, stereos, PCs, game consoles--will start working together, somehow, some way. Microsoft sees Freestyle/Windows XP and Windows CE.Net as key components to making that happen. But that does not necessarily mean that you will embrace its vision.

MICROSOFT CLEARLY NEEDS to support other standards as the entertainment industry and other component makers decide what they'll do. So if Windows CE.Net doesn't conquer the world--and I am not expecting it will--the XP-based home computer must learn to talk to whatever devices are out there.

Of course, it is not a foregone conclusion that the PC will dominate the home environment in the way it already does the office world. And this Consumer Electronics Show has already seen the introduction of a potentially formidable competitor, the new Moxi device created by WebTV founder Steve Perlman.

Moxi's all-in-one approach, offering a variety of entertainment devices in a single package, would do most, if not all, of what Microsoft wants a PC to do. These approaches--Microsoft's and Moxi's, as well as a number of others I expect to see--don't have to be mutually exclusive.

So let me set some benchmarks for Microsoft in its efforts to move the PC to center stage in home entertainment:

  • Baby steps. Microsoft needs to move slowly and not get ahead of customers' ability to accept and implement change, or of PC hardware and peripheral makers' ability to provide devices that work with the new features.

  • Universality. The new features need to be available to any Windows device--and I mean any--that can support them. While all users won't use all features, and some won't use any, universal availability means people can easily teach their friends to use features they didn't even know they had.

  • Free. Freestyle and other XP enhancements need to be free. In fact, the add-ons need to be done in a way that adds nothing to the cost of a new PC. The key to getting people to adopt this new technology is to make it as painless as possible. It just needs to show up in their lives in usable form.

  • Playing well with others. Microsoft will not be able to force-feed Windows CE.Net (or anything else) to all the companies that need to build products that interface with the home PC of the future. Microsoft must be inclusive, but the consumer electronics industry needs to accept Microsoft's ownership of the PC platform and try to play along, too. And this means that Microsoft and companies that would use something instead of a PC to support next-generation home applications also need to learn to play together.

  • Christmas 2002. That's when Microsoft needs to make this happen. If Microsoft doesn't have Freestyle-enabled PCs (and add-ons for existing machines) widely available at popular prices in time for holiday shoppers, it will have failed an important test.

This is a fairly complex topic, and it isn't at all clear how it will play out. I am certain that the PC will play a greater role in home entertainment and information, just as I am certain there will be a number of other devices and approaches trying to do the same thing.

P.S. If you are at CES, drop by the CNET Radio booth, where we will be broadcasting live today through Thursday from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. PT. (I'm on from noon until 1 p.m.) If you can't make it to the show, you can listen online and watch our video segments, getting all the highlights of the show without leaving your home or office.

Do you think Microsoft is moving in the right direction, in the right way? Will home users embrace these changes or ignore them? TalkBack to me.


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