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It’s Microsoft in 2005

Dec 08, 20033 mins

Essentials for creating the whole-home network will be built into the Longhorn OS

On Sept. 30, Microsoft announced the latest version of its Media Center PC software to a resounding industry yawn.  New features such as FM radio, 16:9 display support and phone-call notification are not revolutionary by any means.

So when will Media Center PC software start to live up to its early hype — Microsoft’s promise to transform your boring PC into a whole-home media server?

The company provided some details last May at its hardware developers conference in New Orleans. Turns out, Microsoft will enable whole-home media distribution through the native strengths built into its next operating system, codenamed Longhorn. The OS will include new features such as TiVo-like functionality, a built-in TV tuner and a remote control so you can interact with it like a true multimedia device. 

By supporting the Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) AV protocol, Longhorn will communicate with and synchronize remote networked devices that will render content streaming from the Media Center PC — making it a true home media server. It will also map out remote TV tuners on the network, whether they be part of a TV or set top box. These tuners will then be able to play video content streamed from your PC.

UPnP AV support in itself isn’t that interesting. But the framework that Microsoft is building around it is an evolutionary leap forward. Longhorn’s Media Center PC software will include built-in Microsoft Digital Rights Management, the essential security software that will ensure Hollywood puts its high value content on your PC. The software will also support two protocols that enable video content streaming from server to client: Real Time Protocol and Real Time Streaming Protocol.

The software will also have transcoding capabilities, which means it will dynamically select the media format that fits the network’s available bandwidth. For instance, if an MPEG2 stream is too big, the software will drop down to MPEG4, or more likely since this is Windows, Windows Media format.

But perhaps the most interesting news: Microsoft plans to partner with hardware manufacturers to build Media Center TV clients, cheap set top boxes running Windows CE and networked to the Media Center PC. The devices will let you stream MPEG2, Windows Media and MP3 files to the TV, creating a true Microsoft-powered whole home network. Microsoft says it doesn’t plan to sell the these scaled down “Windows-boxes” directly. Instead, PC manufacturers will sell them as part of the Longhorn Media Center package.

Partners will likely include traditional PC OEMs, as well as some surprises from the set top box and SOHO networks market. However, don’t expect this whole-home Media Center edition next year; Longhorn isn’t expected to ship until some time in 2005.