Future of Windows Media Centre in Australia?

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COMMENTARY: Microsoft has finally, categorically and irrefutably confirmed that it will release the Media Centre Edition of Windows in Australia.

While this is a little far from the full announcement of features and release date that we were hoping for, it's at least a step in the right direction.

Even though it's been expected for quite some time now, the announcement is still significant. It comes bundled with a couple of surprises, and plenty of unanswered questions.

A number of hardware vendors have already committed to developing and delivering Media Centre products. The Microsoft press release says that Acer, HP and Toshiba are on board, and that Microsoft is in talks with a number of other hardware manufacturers, so expect more announcements soon.

I had a chat to John Gillhespy, senior manager, strategic development and planning, home and entertainment division at Microsoft Australia, to see what's in store for us. An expert at Microsoft-speak, Gillhespy gave us few hard facts to rely on, but he did say a couple of interesting things.

One of the key features of Media Centre is its DVR (digital video recorder) functionality. DVRs are only just starting to receive significant press coverage in Australia, but they have been around for quite some time in the US.

Basically it means that in five years you will no longer be bound to the time dependency of TV programming. You'll be able to tell your DVR (or Media Centre PC/device) to record the specific shows you want, as well as the types of shows, such as documentaries about space, or crime/law dramas, and at the end of the day you come home, fire up your TV and browse for the stuff you want. Some will even have built-in DVD burners, so you can archive material for later viewing.

Media Centre should deliver all this functionality, and more, although there's a catch. To fully exploit the functionality of a DVR, you need a reliable digital program guide that is consistent across all channels. Without that, you're back to browsing the paper and manually inputting the times and dates of the shows you want -- you won't be able to browse the guide online, or have the DVR make choices for you.

This is rumoured to be an area where Microsoft has run into some trouble on this side of the Pacific. It's hard for us to get a clear picture of what the problems have been, but it could well come down to the mix-and-match nature of the digital TV rollout in Australia, and the lack of conformity on standards by all the stations. For example, all broadcasters are transmitting a standard SD signal, but when it comes to HD TV, SBS and Seven are using HD 576p, while the other stations are running with HD 1080i.

However, Microsoft is fully aware of how imperative the digital program guide is to Media Centre's success, and hopefully this announcement means it's made some progress in negotiating with the stations.

One other foible of Media Centre is that while it's basically a version of Windows XP, and it runs on standard PC hardware, it's not available as a separate boxed product to install on your own system. Media Centre is only available bundled with hardware from a certified vendor.

I can understand why Microsoft would do this -- Media Centre is essentially consumer electronics-class technology, and as such it should be as simple, easy and intuitive to operate as your VCR -- well, maybe that's a bad example, but you get my drift.

So, the last thing Microsoft wants to have is millions of home users calling tech support, or their point of purchase, asking how to download a firmware update, or install a software patch. It should just work out of the box, first time.

Given that, there are people who know a thing or two about firmware and patches, and many of them will be capable of building custom PCs to sit atop their telly. They can source a digital TV card, high-capacity hard disk, DVD burner, wireless networking card, IR or RF remote etc. All that's needed is a neat and tidy OS to tie it all together. And that could be Media Centre, but alas, Gillhespy confirmed that Microsoft has no plans to provide a separate product at launch.

At this stage, it seems like Microsoft won't release a boxed version of Media Centre at all, but it might start working on a new set of APIs, much like DirectX, that hardware like TV tuners need to adhere to, and then a boxed copy would be more likely. But even then, I can't see that happening for another few years at least.

In other related news, Portable Media Centre (PMC) could be with us even sooner than the PC Media Centre. PMC is for hand-held devices, like small movie players and big MP3 players. It runs independently of a PC, and doesn't require anything like a digital program guide to work as intended. We've already taken a sneak peek at Creative's Zen running PMC, and Gillhespy stated that there's nothing stopping the manufacturers from bringing them over to Australia right away.

We at PC Authority are all pretty excited about what Media Centre will do to the digital home, but I have one open question for the rest of the IT industry to answer: why does it need to be Microsoft?

The Media Centre concept is clearly a good one. There can be no question it's a taste of the next several years in home entertainment. It's also been out in the US for quite some time, as have dedicated DVRs like the TiVo. So, the concept is not new, the hardware to make it happen is not expensive, it's only the software and the infrastructure that are missing.

So why haven't any other vendors bothered stepping up to the plate and having a crack at the product?

Even when Media Centre hits our shores, small system integrators and OEMs are going to be at a disadvantage as you'll need Microsoft certification in order to bundle Media Centre on a system. So the small players probably won't be offering anything with Media Centre at all. So where's the alternatives?

Linux can do everything Media Centre can do, but no one's gone out and made a dedicated distro that does all this, and has a nice consumer-friendly interface. Sure the installation will be harder -- much harder -- but there's plenty of PC tech people with the savvy to sort out that end of the bargain.

The digital program guide still presents a challenge -- well, only until Microsoft gets all the networks in line -- then the 'alternative media centre' could just use the same data stream and integrate that. Easy.

And, where's Apple?

When it comes to cool new tech with exciting possibilities for the consumer market, I'd expect Apple to be first in line with a slick, simple and sexy offering. In the case of a set-top PC, you don't need PC compatibility, so it could well see the kind of success that Apple experienced with the iPod. Maybe this is what we can look forward to at the next Jobs keynote at Mac World?

In any case, if no one else wants a piece of the pie, so be it. We'll just have to wait for Media Centre -- and if you can't wait for that, then stay tuned to PC Authority over the next couple of months, and we'll show you how to make your own.

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