Media Center will succeed, just not yet

Summary:Microsoft's new cut-price Windows XP Media Center edition looks set to be targeted at home users, but the systems still seem too expensive

Microsoft is promoting its Windows Media Center Extender devices as the easiest way to get music, photos and video from a Media Center PC to a stereo or TV.

However, consumers won't care much today, since they can find cheaper music distribution solutions, and their TVs work just fine without a PC, thank you very much. But pay attention, anyway: Media Center Extender is Microsoft's first step in creating a universal "personal media server" for running digital home applications. In future versions, content owners may find it attractive to target this platform as an alternate path to consumers' TVs and stereos.

We spoke with Microsoft lead product manager Mark Pendergrast and lead program manager Scott Evans about the company's new Windows Media Center Extender, a box that connects a stereo or TV to a home network, accessing the music, photos and video stored on a Media Center PC. Hewlett-Packard and Linksys will ship the first Media Center Extender devices this fall. Our call: Version 1 of Windows Media Center Extender will fail to excite most consumers this festive season.

They are an expensive way to pipe digital music to the stereo. At $300 retail, Media Center Extender devices cost twice as much as home network music adapters from Apple and Netgear. The Media Center Extender's remote control and ability to play Microsoft music files won't be enough to sway most digital music consumers today.

For recorded video, digital video recorders are cheaper and easier to hook up. Despite Microsoft's fervent hope that consumers are linking their Media Center PCs to the TV, it's simply not true: Only 9 percent of the DVR users we recently surveyed used a PC to record their programs. With cable boxes and conditional access in the way, it's simply too difficult to get TV programming onto a PC, a problem that cheap or free cable and satellite DVRs don't have.

TiVo-like devices already scroll through photos on the TV. While some consumers will want to show off their digital snapshots on the high-definition TV in the living room, most will gladly drag family members into the home office. If they want to see photos on the television set, TiVo's home media option already does that nicely.

But if you have an Xbox, the low-cost Xbox Extender Kit makes sense. Buried in the announcement is a new product for Xbox Live owners that turns the connected game console into a media player and a low-cost way to get photos, music and programming to the game room. Because Xbox Live consoles are already attached to a TV and the home network, this kit does the job for $80 -- a whole lot cheaper than buying a Media Center Extender box just to move photos and music around.

Looking ahead
Even though Media Center Extenders won't fly today, they're an intriguing start. Those few consumers who do buy one have a new way to get access to music on the stereo and video on the TV -- over the Internet. Think of the combination of a Media Center PC and Media Center Extenders as a consumer's "personal media server" -- a universal platform for managing personal and premium content experiences.

Topics: Enterprise Software

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