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Cable confab channels entertainment

At Cable 2002, software and hardware companies tout their wares to cable-TV companies. One of the biggest trends: the home-entertainment hub.

Announcements were popping up faster than new cable channels Monday at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association's annual convention in New Orleans.

At Cable 2002, software and hardware companies are touting their wares to cable-TV companies in hopes of signing lucrative deals that would give them cuts of monthly revenue. At the same time, cable companies are looking for new features and services that could attract new subscribers to their digital cable products and stave off the loss of customers to satellite companies.

One of the biggest trends in interactive television of late is the convergence of media into one home-entertainment device.

Intel is the latest company to throw its hat into the ring, announcing on Monday a hardware reference design, or blueprint, to help developers get such converged products to market faster and less expensively than if they were to create their own device.

The Intel Media Center Reference Design is based on Intel's Celeron processor and includes hardware and software that will give consumers high-speed access to the Internet and entertainment capabilities such as DVD playback, digital video recording, interactive gaming, television reception, MP3 playback, video on demand and home networking.

The blueprints for the device will be available for download in late May and will support processors from low-end Celerons to Pentium IIIs. The Media Center Reference Design will not be an Intel-branded product, but instead will be used by other companies to develop their own devices.

"We are having discussions with consumer electronics (manufacturers) that are interested in the design, but no plans have been firmed up to date," said Tom Potts, a spokesman for Intel.

Microsoft's Windows XP Embedded and CE.Net operating systems also support the reference design. Microsoft has been working on and demonstrating a version of XP called Freestyle that serves as a platform for digital video, music and photos; records TV shows; and comes with a TV program guide. Freestyle, due by the end of the year, is designed to work with a remote control, and its interface is large enough to be seen from across a living room.

On Monday, Microsoft announced a program guide for low-end set-top boxes.

Moxi Digital, which merged with Digeo in late March, kicked off the year with its Media Center device and has drawn more industry attention to the idea of a home-entertainment hub.

The combined company, Digeo, said Monday that the first devices using its software will be manufactured by Motorola and sold to Charter Communications' cable subscribers. Called the Motorola BMC8000, the digital set-top box equipped with Moxi technology will include a hard drive and a 3D graphics engine, among other features. Charter will begin selling the BMC8000 later this year.

Philips also announced on Monday two alliances that will help the consumer-electronics giant produce similar devices capable of distributing content wirelessly. Philips' semiconductor division will work with Ucentric Systems and Pace Micro Technology.

Ucentric's software and Philips' Nexperia Home Entertainment Engine chip can be used in set-top boxes to store and distribute content to multiple television sets, stereos and computer throughout the home. Pace contributes its Home Media Center set-top box to the mix.