Bill Gates' Next Big Idea

Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates explains some of the features of the Windows Media 9 Series platform during a keynote address Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2002, in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. AP

Couch potatoes, rejoice. Now you have even less reason to get up.

Microsoft Corp. and several hardware companies unveiled on Tuesday a slew of personal computers powered with a new version of Windows XP Media Center software.

The Media Center operating system turns a computer into a digital entertainment system and creates a platform for other companies to offer pay services such as video games or buying songs from the Internet. The computer also can function as a regular PC.

When the Media Center mode is running, the device allows TV show viewing, plays digital music collections and allows for radio listening, catalogs photos and plays DVDs, on a single computer and controlled from a single remote.

The new version offers additional features that emulate digital television recorders. Among them are a function that records television programs by their type, allows users to skip ahead seven seconds while watching a recorded broadcast and the ability to pause live television broadcasts.

Though software such as Snapstream Media's Personal Video Station, Microsoft's Media Player and many others can do most of the jobs of a Media Center, Microsoft is trying to package those tasks in one program that can be controlled by the remote control.

The idea is Microsoft's biggest push to date to get personal computers out of the home office and into the living room - a strategy to make new PCs more an entertainment center than a computing device.

"Our goal is to create software breakthroughs that break down the boundaries between the different devices people use in the home and make the most out of all the technology available today," Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said in an e-mail interview.

Analysts said the new Media Center version offers better software stability for fewer crashes than the previous version, but that the PC still has a way to go before becoming a living room addition.

Price is one issue. Although several computer manufacturers are offering a broader spectrum of Media Center PCs, the cost is between $999 to $4,000. Add the extra cost of a high-speed Internet connection and large LCD screen or TV to employ all the features, and the cost can be daunting.

The television viewing quality also falls a bit short for most broadcasts, said Randy Giusto, vice president of personal technology for research firm IDC.

And in some ways, it's not technology but architecture that may curb adoption, Giusto noted. Many times, the living room isn't necessarily wired for the Internet connection necessary for downloading the TV program guide or music files. Moreover, most people don't use their living rooms as a place to work on their computer.

"It really feels like much more of a consumer electronics type of product as opposed to a PC product," said Michael Gartenberg, research director with Jupiter Research.

Still, the product must first appeal to a mainstream audience that has little patience for computer glitches and other bugs that often hassle their work life, Gartenberg said.

"The difference between success and failure in a consumer electronics experience is measured in millimeters," he said.


By Helen Jung
  • Francie Grace

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