Windows PC vs. Xbox: Which gets the starring role in Microsoft's living room hub of the future?

When Microsoft brass say "three screens and the cloud," do they mean PC-TV-phone? Or Xbox-TV-phone? Or is it really four screens and the cloud we're talking about (PC, Xbox, TV, phone) -- with Windows (or Xbox) as the "alpha" screen?
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Readers are continuing to send in more clues about Microsoft's cross-platform media play. The leads, to this point, have focused on Xbox as the the hub in Microsoft's "x number of screens and a cloud" entertainment strategy. But after reading a few recent "Windows Entertainment Client" job posts, I'm wondering if at least some of the Softies are trying to hold onto Chairman Bill Gates' long-held vision that the PC will be the living room hub.

Last week, I blogged about Microsoft's "Ventura Media Services" -- which may or may not be the successor to the Microsoft Zune's music/video service. This week, a reader sent in a link to another Microsoft job posting that doesn't mention "Ventura" by name, but is also related to Microsoft's three-screens plan on the consumer side of the house.

The new job posting (and a couple of other related ones I subsequently found) make reference to the Windows Entertainment Client team that is in the Interactive Entertainment Business (IEB) unit at the company. This team is building a synchronization platform "from ground up," according to one of the postings.

Here's more from one of the WEC job posts:

"We are the Windows Entertainment Client team and are chartered to revolutionize the way that people consume the Video, Music and TV content on their PC. Working closely with Xbox, Windows Phone, and Zune.net http://Zune.net>, we will light up the premium PC entertainment experience. Together we will build rich, immersive, social, and cloud-connected video and music experiences that will delight our users by giving them access to the entertainment they want, anywhere they want it to be....

"The WEC Platform team is building a next generation synchronization platform from ground up to enable accessing and sharing media content across PC(s), mobile device, Xbox and cloud. We are actively partnering with multiple Microsoft groups to light up these scenarios in seamless manner. We are seeking to hire a passionate developer with strong technical and development skills, customer focus, great team player attitude, ability to quickly ramp up on new technologies and drive for results. This is a unique opportunity to lead the entertainment industry by enabling access to user’s media on any devices."

(The post mentions that preferred candidates will have knowledge of sync frameworks, including Live Mesh, the Microsoft Sync Framework and SQL Server concepts. Sounds like a job for David Treadwell and his merry band, to me....)

Another WEC job post seeks individuals desiring to help create a "new generation of 'Epic Entertainment Experiences' for Music and Video that span the PC, TV, and Mobile screens."

Here's more from that job post:

"Are you interested in helping create a new generation of “Epic Entertainment Experiences” for Music and Video that span the PC, TV, and Mobile screens? Do you have a passion for quality and providing a great customer experience? If so, the Windows Entertainment Client (WEC) team might be the place for you. By joining this team, you have the opportunity to help revolutionize the way people interact with their music, videos, games, and social networks through PC entertainment.

"The WEC team (part of the Interactive Entertainment and Business Unit within E&D) is responsible for delivering the current Zune PC software and the next generation PC software used to consume all the media on your PC as well as interact with Windows Phones, Kin Phones, Zune devices, Xbox360, Zune marketplace, and other key partners. We are just beginning the next product cycle planning and development so you still have time to get in on the ground floor. This is a great opportunity for someone looking to broaden their technical skills, make a big impact, grow their career, and have a lot of fun."

Another Windows Entertainment Client post mentions the Zune PC software (codenamed "Dorado"). From that posting:

"If you like the experiences that the Zune PC Client delivers today, and would like to be instrumental in delivering the next generation of these, and feel you have the drive, smarts, and leadership skills to make this happen, this could be the role for you."

Here's a quick refresher on Microsoft names and codenames. Zune doesn't refer only to the Zune media player devices. Zune also is Microsoft's brand name for its music/video service, as well as the aforementioned client software that allows users to sync/update their Zune players and Windows Phone 7 devices. It's unclear whether Microsoft intends to drop the Zune brand in the coming year.

Ventura is the codename for a set of services being developed by Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices (E&D) unit, of which IEB is a part. These services are focused on music and video discovery and consumption. They sound, from my sources, as though they include recommendations, ratings and comments. New/future versions of the Zune software and/or service may have something to do with Ventura (or may be replaced by it).

I've noted previously that Ventura also is part of "Orapa," the platform that will bring Mediaroom features to Xbox Live users. The Ventura social-networking and music/video discovery and consumption pieces are also slated to be part of Orapa, from what I've heard. There's said to be a Mediaroom for the Windows Media Center client in the works, as well, that's codenamed "Monaco."

The Windows Entertainment Client job postings leave me with lots of questions and few answers.

  • Is the Windows Entertainment Client team building something beyond just a new version of Windows Media Center?
  • Does the Zune client (or whatever "Dorado" is called, going forward) end up becoming the new Windows (Live) Media Player, as has been suggested by some?
  • Why is Microsoft -- the company of many different synchronization technologies and frameworks -- creating yet another sync platform from scratch?
  • Are these plans for Windows Entertainment Client still current, given the early 2011 reorg in the Entertainment and Devices unit (about which we know relatively little)?
  • When Microsoft brass say "three screens and the cloud," do they mean PC-TV-phone? Or Xbox-TV-phone? Or is it really four screens and the cloud we're talking about (PC, Xbox, TV, phone) -- with Windows (or Xbox) as the "alpha" screen?

My biggest quetion: Is Microsoft positioning the Windows PC or Xbox console to be the "hub" of its consumer media play? Or are company execs doing the traditional Microsoft internal bake-off/internal compete thing, letting the "best" team win?

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