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Thursday, November 04, 2004

Battle for the living room

The Guardian writes that Microsoft's plans to take over the home entertainment market are well advanced.
The theory runs that within a decade, standard cathode ray tube TVs, VHS videos and DVD players will be history. In their place will be a home entertainment system in which one box wirelessly streams audio, video, web and television content to a series of flat screens and handheld devices throughout the home. That box could possibly be anywhere in your house, but the first step for Microsoft is to establish its PCs as the prime consumer electronics product for the living room. With windows mediacenter launch,the most interesting thing about the Microsoft launch was not actually the software - which has been slightly refined to incorporate several new features like Instant Messaging while watching TV - but the direction in which the hardware is moving. Microsoft and its hardware partners pose a real threat to consumer electronics manufacturers such as Sony and Philips. Looking at the specifications of the latest Media Center PCs gives you a sense of Gates's ambitions. The models not only boast standard PC features like a DVD/CD player, and a huge hard disk that houses MP3 or WMA music files, Windows Media video files and JPeg photo files, they also include an analogue TV tuner and offer hard disk-based video recording similar to Sky+, all operated via a remote control and wireless mouse and keyboard. They also offer easy access to web-based content such as streamed audio, video and internet radio. If Microsoft's hunch is right, many consumer electronics companies could be sidelined. With their core DVD/video recorder market on the wane, they could be left making just screens and speakers. Such well-established companies will not take the threat lightly, however, and many are gearing up to take the software giant on.Sony's strategy is based around set-top boxes, called Network Media receivers, which wirelessly link to a PC to access music, video and, in the future, web-based content - Sony thinks that some consumers will want to access the kind of content they have on their PC, on their TV and hi-fi system and so e are providing them with an easy way of doing it. Although Sony offers a Microsoft Media Center XP PC in the US, it has developed its own software, which it feels offers superior performance levels and interface - it expects a lot of this functionality integrated into TVs shortly.
It is inevitable that in the future, consumers will be able to move content around their home," says Brian O'Sullivan, director of new product development and sales at Sky TV, "the key issue for, say, film companies is how secure will that content be. They won't want a repeat of the illegal downloading of music files. We have years of delivering secure content over satellite, while content via broadband has only just started." Microsoft and its partners could also face problems in persuading cable subscribers to trade their set-top boxes for living room-friendly PCs. Cable firms not only offer a more comprehensive portfolio of channels, but have hooked many subscribers on three counts by giving competitively priced internet access and phone calls as well. There is, of course, nothing to stop consumers from using PCs in tandem with cable or even satellite, but as future set-top boxes are likely to replicate many PC features, it might not make economic sense to have both.
In the short term, there are many areas in which the Media Center PCs will have to improve if they are to challenge for the home market, but medium to long term ,it has a fighting chance to dominate this market segment.
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Sadagopan's Weblog on Emerging Technologies, Trends,Thoughts, Ideas & Cyberworld
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