Microsoft has bowed to consumer pressure and pulled back from a controversial plan that would have encrypted TV shows recorded on forthcoming digital media PCs.
Hewlett-Packard is the exclusive U.S. distributor for the new PCs, which run Windows XP Media Center Edition, a variation on Microsoft's flagship Windows operating system. One of the most compelling features would allow consumers to record TV shows to the computer's hard drive. Known as a digital video recorder (DVR), the feature also would allow consumers to stop live-action TV for instant replays or to schedule recording of shows ahead of time.
But Microsoft chose to copy-protect recorded programming, meaning that it would be viewable only on the one computer. Microsoft claimed that the importance of placating Hollywood about pirated content justified the restriction, even though "fair use" laws give consumers greater freedom in copying shows onto VHS tapes for personal use. The decision also put HP at a competitive disadvantage to Sony, which sells Vaio consumer PCs that can record shows that can be copied to CDs and DVDs or distributed across a home network.
A Microsoft spokeswoman on Tuesday confirmed that the company had done an about-face on the copy protection feature, which would be removed before new PCs hit store shelves in time for the holidays. But that could put pressure on HP to apply software fixes to systems already in production. HP's system, the Media Center PC, is expected to go on sale by the end of October, with a high-end model on store shelves within a couple of weeks.
ARS analyst Toni Duboise described the turnabout as a "very wise move on Microsoft's part. It takes them from a no-win situation to a possible win...I don't think consumers would buy into the copy protection."
Besides other normal PC functions, Media Center PCs offer a second user interface through which people can access the operating system's digital media features via remote control. HP's models are expected sell in between the high $1,500 range and around $2,000, not including a monitor.
HP is expected to ship three models, which would come with at least a 2GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB of RAM, 100GB or more of storage, DVD+R/RW drive, CD-ROM drive, 64MB Nvidia GeForce4 graphics card, Creative Labs Audigy sound card, and five USB 2.0 and two FireWire ports. The low-end model would feature a 200-watt Klipsch Pro Media 2.1 speaker system and the top-of-the-line model would have version 5.1 of that speaker system. The HP Media Center PCs also will feature a 6-in-1 media reader, supporting Smart Media and Sony Memory Stick cards, among other portable storage options.
The high-end system, priced at $1,999, features a 2.66GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB of RAM, 120GB hard drive, GeForce4 MX420 graphics card, DVD+R/RW drive, 48x CD-ROM drive and an Audigy 6 sound card with FireWire ports, according to HP.
Microsoft sees Media Center PCs as ideal for college students or young urbanites living in cramped spaces where a combination computing and entertainment system might be more appealing than separate devices. The new PCs also come with digital photo, music and movie features already available with Windows XP.
Users can access the digital media features through the second user interface, the keyboard or remote control. Consumers also can call up the digital media user interface by pressing any one of five buttons on the front of the PC. These access the five main digital media features: music, pictures, television, videos, electronic program guide.
Windows Media Center PCs will compete directly with new Vaio computers that Sony unveiled last month. Sony, too, has added a new user interface for calling up digital media features. Like the Media Center PC, the new Vaios can burn DVDs and record TV shows to the hard drive.