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CONNECTED COMMENT (01/02/05)

 

A recurring sense of déjà vu has become an occupational hazard for those working in or around the computer industry as trends and fads are constantly recycled. The latest new next big thing is a concerted effort to shift PCs out of the office or bedroom and into the living room, next to the TV.

 

Needless to say it’s not a new idea and almost ten years ago Olivetti tried something similar with its Envision range of PCs. Looking like a VCR and designed to connect to a television instead of a monitor, they came with a cordless keyboard and mouse so you could play games, listen to audio CDs and surf the web from the comfort of your armchair.

 

In spite of a brave attempt to domesticate the clumsy and unreliable Windows 95 operating system Envision was doomed to failure and quickly disappeared from view. Over the intervening years the concept has been revisited several times but now, at last, it looks as though something might come of it.

 

Microsoft is behind this most recent push with project ‘Symphony’, recently reborn as Windows XP Media Centre Edition 2005. It’s a major revision of the Windows operating system with the aim of a single box that can record TV programmes, play DVDs, CDs and the latest games, display photographs, download music and video from the Internet and act as a connection point and file server for personal audio and video players.

 

MCE 2005 is more than a jazzed up version of its PC-based cousin and Microsoft has worked hard to improve reliability only too aware that a ‘Blue Screen of Death’ crash halfway through a recording of Coronation Street would be the kiss of death. Microsoft is also leaning heavily on hardware manufacturers, obliging them to develop smaller, cheaper, quieter and cooler running boxes that blend in with other home entertainment devices.

 

At the heart of a MCE 2005 PC is a hard disc video recording facility with support for two tuners, so just like a VCR it can record one channel whilst you watch another. But unlike your VHS machine it can ‘pause’ live TV, a neat trick that lets you ‘freeze’ a TV programme, when the phone or doorbell rings. At the press of a button Media Centre starts recording so when you return you can resume watching from the point where you left off. Timer recording will be easier too and an Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) downloads data from the Internet and displays programme details for up to two weeks ahead.

 

All very interesting but two questions spring to mind: is Microsoft seeking world domination of our televisions, as well as our computers, and are consumers ready to let PCs into their living rooms?

 

It’s no secret that Microsoft has long-term ambitions in broadcasting and if successful MCE 2005 would give it another significant toehold in the industry but it would still be a small fish in a very big pond so media moguls can rest easily, for a little while longer at least…

 

The more immediate challenge for Microsoft and its partners has been to give the PC a thorough makeover and get as far away as possible from the beige box full of noisy fans and chattering disc drives image. First generation Media Centre PCs now coming onto the market pass this test and most of them are almost silent and look like ordinary hi-fi and video components.

 

The Media Centre user interface has been carefully crafted to avoid looking anything like a PC desktop and whilst it is possible to hook up a keyboard and mouse, (to get at Windows XP, which lurks behind the scenes), most day to day functions can be accessed from a simple remote control with no more buttons than the average DVD player handset.

 

MCE 2005 still has several hurdles to overcome and this includes fighting off competition from a raft of current and future digital video recording devices and rival PC-based solutions. Apple has yet to show its hand and a repeat of the iPod phenomena in the audio-visual market is not out of the question either, but for the moment the omens look quite good and if the hardware manufacturers can work their usual magic on prices who knows, in a few years time you might well find yourself staring at the Windows logo whenever you switch on your TV…

 

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Ó R. Maybury 2005 2701

 

 

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