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With new OS, Microsoft seeks couch potatoes' eyes

New version of Media Center and accompanying gadget support will make TV shows recorded on a PC available all over the house.

With its eyes firmly set on the living room, Microsoft plans to release next month a new incarnation of Windows XP Media Center Edition, an entertainment-oriented version of Windows XP.


What's new:
Microsoft plans next month to offer a souped-up incarnation of Media Center, the version of Windows XP that allows PCs to have TiVo-like capabilities.

Bottom line:
The battle for the living room is heating up, with many PC makers supporting Microsoft but continuing to explore other options in an effort to stand out.

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The company has scheduled an Oct. 12 event in Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium, where it's expected to release an update to the operating system, as well as introduce the first crop of Media Center extenders--devices that allow television shows recorded on a Media Center PC to be watched on a television in another room.

The new version of Media Center, along with the extender devices and a gaggle of Portable Media Center handhelds, are a key part of Microsoft's fall marketing campaign to pump up sales of Windows XP.

In many cases, the Media Center extender will take the form of a set-top box, but Microsoft has also said it will sell a kit that will enable its Xbox game console to act as an extender. Also, the software maker has said it hopes to convince some television makers to include the extender technology in their products.

As for the OS, Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is like its predecessor in that it has all the features of Windows XP as well as a separate interface designed to be viewed on a television and controlled from a distance by remote control.

The new version of the OS is expected to offer a broader set of capabilities from within the "10-foot experience," as Microsoft calls its remote-controlled interface. Screenshots on various enthusiast sites have shown a new instant messaging program as well as the ability to burn CDs and DVDs and synch to devices, all from within the Media Center environment.

A Microsoft representative confirmed the company has an event planned for Oct. 12 but declined to comment on when a future version of Media Center would be announced or what features it would include.

Media Center is Microsoft's main thrust in the increasingly crowded battle among PC giants to dominate the living room. In many cases, Microsoft is finding PC makers to be willing partners, while other companies, such as Sony, have both supported Microsoft's approach and offered their own alternative entertainment software. Microsoft and Sony have become rivals in the market for game consoles, which are increasingly offering PC-like abilities such as music playback and image editing.

Intel has supported the idea of devices like the Media Center, touting the Entertainment PC concept, which features PCs that look and feel like consumer electronics devices. The chipmaker showcased a number of designs for such devices at last week's Intel Developer Forum. While many of the machines ran some flavor of Media Center, other devices ran competing Linux and Windows-based programs.

Many PC makers have hedged their bets. Dell for example, sells some Media Center PCs but offers a rival program called the Dell Media Experience that offers some of the same features, sans television recording, and comes standard on its full array of consumer PCs.

Hewlett-Packard has been one of the earliest supporters of the Media Center, with it and Samsung first to market in 2002, but HP has chosen to partner in part with Apple Computer on the digital music front, selling the iPod and including iTunes rather than backing rival Windows-based technologies.

Microsoft made the debut of the first version of the Media Center OS in 2002 and updated the software last September, adding holdouts Dell and Sony as partners. Though the latest version of the software boasts an impressive set of features compared with TiVo and other consumer electronics devices, it has also been knocked for poor audio and video quality, among other things.

With the new update, Microsoft is hoping to make Media Center a much more mainstream choice among consumers shopping for a PC. Some expect Media Center, or something very much like it, to eventually become Microsoft's primary consumer operating system, though the company has yet to confirm that. What is clear is that Microsoft hopes that with this go-around, the OS can expand beyond niche status.

According to sources, Microsoft is planning to eventually allow companies to offer Media Center PCs without a television tuner. Television recording functions have been one of the primary things that has differentiated Media Center PCs from other high-end Windows computers. However, making the television feature optional would let companies offer lower-cost machines, perhaps below $800, that have some of the other entertainment options the OS provides.

Media Center extenders are seen as a way to address the concern that many people don't want their PC in the same room where they watch television, or they want to be able to watch the programs they've recorded in multiple rooms. The arrival of such devices, along with portable media center handhelds, lets Microsoft begin making the case that its software allows people to view and listen to their content wherever they want.

Microsoft has been largely mum on the new OS release, although several enthusiast Web sites have had screen shots of the new version of Media Center, code-named Symphony. Microsoft began testing the new operating system early this year. The screen shots show new menus for instant messaging, creating CDs and DVDs as well as synching with devices--presumably the Portable Media Center devices that have just started shipping.

DVD burning is a key feature that has been missing from the prior incarnations of Media Center, though third-party software from Sonic Solutions and others allowed recorded TV shows to be burned to DVDs.

Another criticism has been that the OS supports only one tuner, meaning Media Center devices can only record one program at a time and users cannot record one show and watch another channel at the same time. Some industry watchers said they expect Microsoft to change that this time around.

One of the showcase devices for the new OS is likely to be HP's Digital Entertainment Center, which HP unveiled earlier this month in Miami. HP did not say which OS version it was running but did highlight other features such as the removable 160GB storage and HPTunes--a program to access iTunes playlists from within the 10-foot experience. HP has said the device will be available for this year's holiday season.