The most powerful version of Windows that you can buy today isn’t Windows XP Professional. It’s Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004, an XP superset introduced by Microsoft at the end of September. Media Center turns the PC into a living room gadget that you control with a wireless remote. It downloads music and saves the television shows that you pick from an onscreen schedule, like TiVO’s well-known digital recorder. It connects to a computer monitor and a TV screen. But like every computer, the Media Center system still runs PC games and does your taxes. The operative word, at the September 30 product introduction, was “convergence.”
This time around, the software giant is talking about challenging broadcasters and cable firms as the gateways to home-entertainment audiences. That’s because the new edition of Media Center integrates entertainment purveyors — like the relaunched Napster music network, and the Internet movie services Movielink and CinemaNow. Movielink is owned by five Hollywood studios, while CinemaNow is run by the film distributor Lions Gate Entertainment. “The media companies really didn’t have any way to do new audiovideo programming other than, perhaps, create a new cable TV channel,” said Microsoft’s platforms boss Jim Allchin, at the product launch. “As the first truly open entertainment platform, Media Center changes everything. Whether you’re a small independent label or a large conglomerate, you now have a direct path into the home that you didn’t have before.”
Leaning back with a remote control, Media Center users can burn music onto discs or watch over 1,000 movies on demand without subscribing to Time Warner’s HBO and without enduring any commercials. Advertising-sponsored television and radio now has another cause for worry, in addition to commercial-zapping recorders like TiVo and the new digital recorder-equipped cable settop boxes. Allchin said that 100 entertainment firms were cooking up Media Center service offerings.
This year, a new crop of these goodtime PCs will appear with prices in the $700 range — thanks to the trickle down of mighty processing power into low-end chips from the likes of Intel, Advanced Micro Devices and ATI Technologies.
The living room PC comes at a time when homes increasingly have wireless Wi-Fi links to connect gadgets to each other, and to the Internet. This could be big.