Xbox Connect

Windows Media Connects to Xbox

Bill Dyszel

The forthcoming Xbox 360 will become Microsoft's newest connected home media device with today's beta release of Windows Media Connect Version 2.

The new version's biggest innovation is its ability to play media files from a PC through the new Xbox unit, which rumored to be scheduled for release by Thanksgiving.

"This is part of our bigger vision of how content moves around the home," said Kevin Unangst, director of Microsoft Corp.'s Media Device division.

"This particular software update to Windows XP enables the sharing of photos and music out over a home network, so devices that are compatible can discover that content, browse, play it back, [let the user] view things like playlists and have those seamlessly available from those devices."

For several years, consumer electronics manufacturers have been hoping that the integrated home entertainment network would put some spark into consumer device sales.

However, chicken-and-egg issues regarding standards are again one of the first obstacles to making that concept a reality.

Microsoft is jockeying to play a pivotal role in popularizing the home media center, by persuading device manufacturers to embed Media Connect technology in an array of consumer electronics devices, ranging from audio players to set-top cable boxes to HD television sets.

"There are a lot of different ways that we're letting people get better TV," Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said at CES (Consumer Electronics Show). "We've got standards that make all these things work together. That's where the Windows Media connect is. And our software will be used in some of the DVD recorders that come out, and that means you'll get that better connectivity."

Content providers can take some comfort in the fact that Microsoft's system includes full support for Digital Rights Management, which makes content owners less jittery about offering digital content for home networks, knowing that protected content is harder to pirate.

Whether consumers will accept strong DRM systems remains to be seen. Many consumers see DRM schemes as roadblocks that stop them from doing what they want with the content they've paid for.

Also, Microsoft's DRM is not compatible with some of the more popular proprietary media formats such as Quicktime and Real. It's also not compatible with the immensely popular iPod music player, which is by far the most popular portable audio player, along with Apple's iTunes music service.

Microsoft hopes to give consumers some predictability about which DRM will work by advancing the PlaysForSure branding initiative, which is still in early stages of adoption.

In addition to the ability to connect to the new Xbox unit, the new version of Windows Media Connect is said to offer performance up to five times faster than the current version of the technology. Speed will be an increasingly critical issue for networked home entertainment devices such as the Xbox 360, which is capable of high-definition resolutions up to 720p.

"This is really light years ahead in terms of the ability to serve up large libraries of content very quickly to those devices that are connected," Unangst said. "Users have a lot of their music stored on their PCs, now they'll have a reason to use them in another area of the house."

While today's release only goes to beta testers, Microsoft says the technology will be available as an upgrade to Windows XP by the end of the year and will be available for Windows Vista some time in the future.

At this point only a handful of consumer electronics device manufacturers support the technology, but Microsoft expects the number to grow significantly.

"Once the capability exists, and people really get their eyes open to what you can do ... we've already seen lots of exciting interest from manufacturers, even starting at last year's CES," Unangst said. "With this new software update and the widespread availability of that, you're going to see some exciting innovations in that space."

Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in PC Magazine.

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