Interactive TV: Whistler goes Hollywood

Is that a Microsoft entertainment hub in your living room? The OS kingpin is adding TV-specific enhancements to its consumer Whistler preview release
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft's Windows 2000 successor has yet to hit Beta 1. But Microsoft will be showing off yet another new alpha build of "Whistler" when the International Broadcasting Convention opens in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, this weekend.

The newest Whistler preview -- most likely of the 32-bit Personal Server version -- will be the first to include some of the enhancements Microsoft is adding to its future Windows release to make it more suitable as a home entertainment hub.

Microsoft posted its second developers' preview of Whistler, Build 2257, on its private tester site at the end of August.

That build, and the one it will show off in Amsterdam, are stepping stones on the way to Whistler Beta 1, which is due out some time next month.

Whistler due to ship commercially in the second half of 2001.

Whistler is the first Windows build in which Microsoft is developing both consumer and business versions using the same NT kernel. (Previously, Microsoft based its consumer/small-office/home-office versions of Windows on the Windows 9X kernel and the business versions on the NT kernel.)

Even though the forthcoming 32-bit consumer and 32- and 64-bit business versions of Whistler will share the same kernel, they won't duplicate feature sets.

The consumer version will include home-oriented features, such as some of the TV-like capabilities that are part of the current Microsoft TV platform.

"We're taking some of the core stuff that will let you distribute video and some of the other interactive TV elements and will be incorporating those in Whistler," explained Microsoft TV director Ed Graczyk.

Graczyk said he wasn't sure if these new features would make it into the Beta 1 build that Microsoft is planning to release in October.

Graczyk talked up Microsoft's view that PC-based appliances, configured for specific uses, will be important platforms in the near future. One such type of device will be the "multipurpose entertainment centre," he claimed.

"Such a platform can be a set-top box replacement. Or set-top-like features will become part of a bigger platform," he said.

Microsoft is expecting many Whistler-based home PCs to evolve into "hubs of a home network, where set-top boxes can be connected to that network," Graczyk added.

Whistler isn't the first Microsoft operating system that the company is attempting to position as a home-entertainment hub, however.

Microsoft is pitching Windows Millennium Edition, its successor to Windows 95/98, which is due to ship commercially September 14, as a multimedia entertainment centre OS, as well.

But Windows Me doesn't include any interactive TV features; instead, its "multimedia entertainment" facilities are limited to sharing home videos, photos and music using Windows Me's home-networking hookup.

At least for now, Microsoft is making no commitment to retrofit any part of its Microsoft TV architecture with Whistler.

Microsoft isn't talking about replacing the Windows CE core that is at the heart of its Basic or Advanced set-top box software with the Whistler core or Whistler Embedded releases.

Nor has it yet begun talking up Whistler as the underpinning for the Microsoft TV Server or TV Access Channel Server software that will power network operators' "head-end" platforms.

Right now, Microsoft sells Windows 2000, coupled with SQL Server 2000, as its server-side TV solution.

Microsoft partners in the TV space, such as AT&T and United Pan-Europe Communications, are still awaiting final delivery of Microsoft TV set-top box software.

Both companies, which Microsoft has invested in, are experiencing setbacks in their interactive TV deployment plans because of Microsoft's delay.

Yet Microsoft has been mum on exactly what parts of its TV platform software aren't yet up to snuff.

In an interview last week with ZDNet News, Rick Belluzzo, group vice president of personal services and devices, wouldn't say much more.

"We had very ambitious plans for client and server (in the TV space)," Belluzzo acknowledged. "It's been more challenging to get the work done than we thought. We will get that fixed.

"We've been there before. You have only one chance with a solution that needs to be available, extensible and scalable. There's nothing we can do except get the job done."

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