Microsoft has launched its long awaited home entertainment operating system, Windows XP Media Center Edition, in Australia.
Aimed squarely at the digital home market, the Media Center system aims to be a home entertainment hub, controlled by remote control. It centralises access to TV, DVD and digital photos displays, along with music, computer games and online content.
The launch at Harvey Norman's technology flagship store at Domayne, Alexandria showcased systems from hardware partners Acer, HP, Optima and Toshiba, along with a portable handheld media player from Creative.
While major OEMs were first off the block with Media Center systems, Microsoft has made the software available to the channel, with 1500 system partners already trained up on the new operating system.
The systems launched today will ship with the latest iteration of the Media Center software (Media Center Edition 2005), and Windows Media Player 10. Media Center will also ship with ninemsn as the default online music service, in a deal announced today.
Despite launching without support for digital television, or an Electronic Program Guide, Microsoft's director of PC software, Jane Huxley, said the growing popularity of digital devices such as digital cameras meant the time was right for Microsoft to bring the Media Center to Australia.
Greater public acceptance of digital media such as photos and music, along with the takeup of broadband internet, was fuelling the shift to replace traditional formats, said Huxley.
"We're seeing a very similar phenomenon with music," said Huxley. The migration to digital music was already taking off, with 70 percent of home PCs already containing at least one digital music track, up from 12 percent in 1999, she claimed.
"We see with video a very similar if not more rapid takeup," said Huxley.
Microsoft is targeting three market segments with the Media Center - consumers and families who use digital cameras or camcorders with a high usage of recording TV or renting DVDs; first time PC buyers, and gadget or home theatre enthusiasts.
"We don't see this as replacing anything already in the home," said Huxley, suggesting that it would be a complementary product, particularly as more homes are tending to have multiple PCs.
While users will be able to play, record and pause live television, Microsoft has confirmed that several key TV features will be missing from the Australian version of Media Center. They include the Electronic Program Guide (EPG) and support for digital television.
The interactive television guide, available in the US, has been held up in Australia as not all television networks wanted to provide their program schedules. But Huxley played down the significance of its absence from the Australian edition.
"We don't think it's an experience people will miss because we've never had it here," she said. Microsoft would continue to lobby media companies to support the program guide, she added.
HP, Toshiba and Acer have confirmed that their Media Center systems are EPG enabled so that if and when Australia gets an Electronic Program Guide, consumers will be able to use it. If the EPG becomes available, consumers can select the TV guide within EPG, choose Australia and the TV program data will be available for use with no software or hardware upgrade necessary.
Microsoft was working on support for digital television in future Media Center editions, although no timeframe was confirmed, said Microsoft senior product marketing manager Danny Beck.