Why Microsoft's Media Center is stuck on the edge

Microsoft wants Media Center to bring drama to your living room. It will get more of that than it bargained for
Written by Leader , Contributor
Bill Gates will tomorrow unveil the next version of Windows XP Media Center, an event that marks an important moment in the convergence of computing and consumer electronics.

'Convergence' is a bland term that implies certain developments in technology are bringing together elements of the computer, the cable box, the television and the world of audio into a seamlessly integrated world.

Don't be fooled. What's really going on is more like the final scene from Reservoir Dogs, in which everyone has pulled a gun on everyone else, and everyone is stuck in a Mexican stand-off. There is a high-street fight going on right now to control the platforms, technical standards and products that people will use in their homes to access all kinds of digital content.

In one corner is Mr Redmond. He controls the computing platform which sits on most of the world's computer desktops, both at home and at work. Unfortunately Windows doesn't allow him to walk through walls, and he's stuck in the home office, or at a desk in a bedroom. Consumers don't want PCs in their living rooms because they're noisy, they take ages to boot up, and they're ugly. They do like the Xbox, although Mr Redmond is currently losing money on every one he sells, but this device, based on a PC architecture, has got a toe-hold in the living room. Tomorrow he will announce the Media Center Extender, which will allow consumers to stream the video on their PCs to the TV in the living room, and begin to link together these two worlds wirelessly.

In another corner is Mr White. He sells Apple computers that consumers love, but which have never reached the critical mass of the PC. He has suddenly got a huge hit on his hands in the form of the iPod. Mr White has cornered the market in the excitement around the freedom and choice that digital music provides. The latest version of his G5 wall-mountable computer has the kind of elegant design that would look great in a living room. However, he has yet to figure out how to push its great industrial design and marketing to also make the leap from home office to living room.

Already standing firmly with both feet in the living room is Mr Silver. The slick plasma, LCD, and CRT televisions provided by the likes of Sony, Philips and Samsung have become important status symbols for affluent consumers, along with a host of cool audio and video products such as DVD players, video projectors, and cinema-style surround sound systems. He's also made a killing with a very popular game platform, the Sony PlayStation. His products lack the flexibility and power of a computing platform, but have the ease of use associated with single-use devices, and some, like the TiVo, have won huge popularity among their users.

Tomorrow Microsoft takes another shot, but the reality is that the people really pulling the trigger are millions of consumers around the world, and so far they seem pretty unconvinced. For once Microsoft is in a fair fight, and can't leverage its desktop monopoly as easily as it can in other software markets. We don't know how this particular movie ends, but it should prove hugely entertaining.

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