Xbox plays starring role in Windows update

New software will more closely link the gaming console into Microsoft's digital entertainment strategy.

Microsoft on Friday delivered new software that will more closely link its forthcoming Xbox 360 gaming console into the company's plans for delivering digital entertainment.

The company said that as part of an update to its Media Center Edition of Windows, it will add the capability to stream digital media--music, videos, photos television and movies--from Media Center PCs to any television or device via Xbox 360. The move has been expected. Company executives discussed plans to build the software earlier this year.

Microsoft already allows customers to stream media through devices it calls Media Center Extenders, and it has in the past sold a kit to make Xbox work with Media Center PCs. But the new software will make Xbox, Microsoft's high-profile game machine, a peer in such arrangements and will for the first time include the ability to stream high-definition content. Xbox 360 consoles with special Media Center Extender technology will ship later this year, said Brad Brooks, senior director of product management in Microsoft's Windows client division.

The move could help promote sales of both Xbox and Media Center PCs, as Microsoft continues to link its products into a larger home entertainment plan, which still relies on the PC--and the company's Windows franchise--as its center of gravity. Competitors include Apple Computer, which continues to build a franchise around its iPod lineup; Sony, the longtime consumer electronics heavyweight; and others.

"The strategy here is quite simple. We want to create an environment based on Windows that will give consumers...the ability to take their content to any device that was connected back to a Windows PC. (Adding) the Xbox 360 is just the next evolution of that vision," Brooks said.

"In past extender experiences, we haven't been able to bring over the full navigation, 3D graphics and (user interface) experience on a Media Center. With an Xbox 360 you get all of that," he said.

The software update, called Update Rollup 2 for Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, will support DVD changers, so that users can manage up to 200 movies through Media Center, Brooks said. In addition, a new feature, called Away Mode, adds a consumer electronics-like on-off function to Media Center PCs. Microsoft will also add new DVD-burning capabilities and will add support for additional high-definition TV tuners.

Microsoft also plans to announce new deals with content providers to develop programming available to Media Center users. New to the list are: additional MTV and VH1 content, along with MTV Overdrive and a broadband video channel; the AOL Pictures digital photo service and AOL Radio featuring XM; the Akimbo Service, which offers more than 5,000 programs from the BBC, National Geographic and Discovery, as well as Major League Baseball playoff games; and two gaming services: Game xStream and Discover Games.

Brooks said the software update will be available as a free download for Media Center users on Friday from the company's Windows Update site. New PCs with the updated software installed should arrive at retailers by this weekend, he said.

It's unclear what role Media Center will play after the release of Windows Vista, a new version of Windows expected to launch next year. Brooks said no final packaging decisions have been made for Vista.

The company released a "community technology preview" of Vista in September. The final version of Vista, which has also been known by its Longhorn code name, is due out in the second half of next year. Microsoft has not said when it will release a second test version of Vista.

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