Microsoft frees up Freestyle

The company is taking Windows XP Media Center Edition from the desktop to the portable, with Alienware and Toshiba making notebooks with the software.

5 min read
Would you like that TV show for here or to go?

Microsoft on Thursday will formally announce that Alienware and Toshiba plan to release notebooks running Windows XP Media Center Edition, originally code-named Freestyle. Using the software, which is a variation of Microsoft's flagship operating system, consumers will be able to watch TV shows on their portables and record the shows to their hard drives.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates on Wednesday evening gave a preview of the new notebooks during his keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Alienware plans to offer its first Windows Media Center notebook by the end of January, while Toshiba is expected to launch its first model later in the year.

Three other companies also plan to develop hardware around Windows XP Media Center Edition, which offers a second user interface for accessing the operating system's digital media features via remote control. As previously reported, ViewSonic will use the operating system to launch a consumer line of PCs. Tagar Systems and iBuyPower Computer also plan to produce consumer products running the software.

"All of the major manufacturers are experimenting with multimedia PCs and laptops," said Paul-Jon McNealy, a Gartner Dataquest analyst. "They're going to keep tweaking these models until they get them right. But it's going to continue to morph until wireless networking becomes ubiquitous."

Moving Microsoft's digital media operating system to notebooks is one of several attempts to bridge the home entertainment gap between portables and desktop computers. Already, notebook sales are gaining on desktop PCs. Research firm IDC estimates that in the United States notebooks account for 25 percent of the personal computer market, with the number of consumer models rising more rapidly than business models.

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Adding new entertainment features to portables could make them more appealing to consumers considering a desktop purchase, analysts say. Among other features, Windows Media Center offers a digital video recorder (DVR) for replaying live-action television or recording programs to the computer's hard drive.

"With the notebook ratio rising so rapidly in the consumer segment, companies having something like this would do well," said IDC analyst Roger Kay. "Consumers are more about entertainment, so I think it's the right direction for things."

Alienware and Toshiba won't be the first companies shipping a portable with TV-viewing and DVR capabilities. Sony already offers a Vaio notebook with similar features but using the company's GigaPocket Personal Video Recorder software rather than Windows XP Media Center Edition.

At the same time, Sony has put together its own competing suite of digital media applications, which includes GigaPocket and Click to DVD, for creating Hollywood-stylized home-movie DVDs. Both companies also will be playing catch-up with Apple Computer, which on Tuesday launched a new digital media suite called iLife and two new PowerBook laptops--a 12-inch and a 17-inch model.

Changing direction
Microsoft introduced Windows XP Media Center Edition at last year's Consumer Electronics Show. Initially, the Redmond, Wash.-based software titan focused on desktop PCs, with first Hewlett-Packard and later Alienware and Gateway distributing Windows Media Center computers.

Toshiba precipitated Microsoft's interest in moving Windows Media Center Edition to notebooks. The Japanese computer manufacturer already made a high-end multimedia notebook line nearly ready for the XP hybrid. The Satellite 5205-703, for example, comes with a 2GHz Pentium 4 processor, a 15-inch UXGA display with theater mode, a 64MB video controller, a 60GB hard drive, a DVD recording drive, surround sound, built-in speakers with a subwoofer and a remote control.

"We took some time and reflected on this laptop concept and, after having some conversations with Toshiba, decided that a laptop really was a smart idea for Media Center Edition," said Jodie Cadiuex, Microsoft's Windows Media Center Edition marketing manager.

McNealy said he's not surprised Microsoft would turn to portables, but he expressed some reservations.

"It's natural they should come out with this kind of model," he said. "But given the nature of what you're going to do on that kind of that configuration, a desktop makes more kind of sense--meaning the TV connectivity, which is a big part of it."

Alienware could not be reached to discuss the configuration of its Windows Media Center portable, which would appear in its Area-51 line. Toshiba is still finalizing the configuration, although Oscar Koenders, Toshiba's vice president of product marketing and worldwide product planning, said the notebook would build on features found on the Satellite 5205. DVD burning would be among them.

"You would certainly want that or you would quickly fill up the hard drive with recorded programs," he said. A one-half hour show typically fills up about 1.5GB of space.

Start-up Emuzed will produce the TV tuners, which in the first iteration will be external USB (universal serial bus) devices.

Kay said that would be a mistake for a notebook. "I think having the tuner on board is a lot better than having a dongle," he said. "You want to give consumers a big honking multimedia machine with everything onboard."

Koenders emphasized that Toshiba is "evaluating multiple options" and may not use an external TV tuner.

He agreed with analysts' conclusions that convergence of home entertainment and computing will be important to revitalizing PC and portable sales.

"We have a new technology center built up in Tokyo, and you've got 3,000 engineers working there," he said. "A large portion of those engineers come from the consumer electronics division, and the task of a large portion of those engineers is to work on convergence products."

As Windows XP Media Center Edition evolves, many improvements will be necessary, analysts say.

"They're getting closer to the converge experience," Kay said. "The interface is pretty good, but it's not 100 percent. From the software side, it's a pretty good experience. From the hardware side, there are so many wires going out of the back of that thing going everywhere."

Microsoft also already made changes in response to consumer complaints. During the summer, the company came under fire for an encryption mechanism that would have restricted recorded TV shows to one PC. Microsoft later backed away from the strategy.

On Thursday, Sonic Solutions is expected to update MyDVD 4 to better support TV programs recorded on Windows Media Center PCs. The update also will extend the portability of the files. The MyDVD 4 update would make it possible to burn DVDs containing Windows Media Center recorded programs that would be usable on a standard consumer DVD player.