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Microsoft's TV vision

WinHEC attendees get specifics on Microsoft's plan to turn today's desktop into "PC 98."

SAN FRANCISCO--Microsoft (MSFT) would someday like consumers to get rid of their TVs and buy "Entertainment PCs."

The company, with the help of Intel, is pushing what it calls the PC 98 system, a box that would let you play games, watch TV, balance your checkbook, consult multimedia references, and surf the Net, all from your living room couch. This is of course everybody's vision for the so-called PC-TV or convergence market, but Microsoft and Intel are this week suggesting a specific list of features to hardware makers at Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC).

A basic PC 98 system would feature a minimum 200-MHz Pentium-class processor with MMX, TV capability, and in some cases a connection to a digital satellite system, according to Microsoft.

PC 98 design guidelines intend to connect PCs to consumer electronic devices and make the PC more like "idiot-proof" products such as TVs. Entertainment PCs may also run the next version of Windows 95, code-named Memphis.

PC 98 will also include a DVD-ROM player, a high-speed connection to a video camera, and a large display. The devices will connect with IEEE 1394, a high-performance kind of cabling that allows users to plug in devices without opening the computer's case or reconfiguring any software. A Univeral Serial Bus connector would connect such devices as speakers, keyboards, and printers.

"[With] the PC today [people are] two feet away and leaning forward. The entertainment PC will be ten feet away and leaning backward," said Intel executive James Pappas to sum up the vision for the Entertainment PC.

Hardware vendors are already falling in line with Microsoft and Intel's plans.

IBM (IBM) demonstrated this week its vision of how such a system might look: an Aptiva consumer PC with 200-MHz Pentium MMX and TV tuner card hooked up to a digital satellite system.

As part of the demonstration, Microsoft-supplied software called the Electronic Program Guide launched a television program guide along with a live TV window. The software will allow users to select from a menu of programs, according to IBM.

Entertainment PCs might eventually include device bays for easy removal and insertion of CD-ROM, DVD, or hard drives to upgrade or transport data to another site. Compaq Computer (CPQ) demonstrated a prototype system that automatically recognized a CD-ROM drive without having to restart the computer, allowing it to be used in place of a hard drive that was swapped out.

Microsoft said its Windows 95 operating system will also get a makeover to give it a simpler interface. Memphis, now in beta testing by developers, may sport an interface with pop-up menus grouped by function rather than application type, such as "DVD, TV, Internet, and Programs," according to a Microsoft demonstration. There will also be a feature akin to a floating "task bar" that allows remote control switching among functions.

Both Memphis and future versions of Windows NT will be able to receive interactive content from satellite, cable, and other broadcast sources, according to Microsoft.

All this is part of Microsoft's sudden absorption in the digital TV or convergence market, an interest underscored by the company's $425 million bid to purchase WebTV announced Sunday. Microsoft has spent the whole week in fact announcing standards, specifications, and designs intended to create an industry for devices where broadcasting and computing meet.