Make Yourself Right at eHome: The Evolution of Networked Entertainment

REDMOND, Wash., May 7, 2003 — With the recent launch of Windows XP Media Center Edition and Windows Media 9 Series, Microsoft is pleased with the role it has played in accelerating consumer adoption of premium digital media and entertainment experiences on the PC and helping extend it to a wide range of consumer devices.

Dennis Flanagan, Product Unit Manager, Windows eHome Division. Click on the image for a high resolution photo

Prior to this week’s Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2003, PressPass spoke with Dennis Flanagan , product unit manager with Microsoft’s Windows eHome Division, who shared his thoughts on the ongoing evolution of networked entertainment for the home, the opportunities Microsoft is providing the PC hardware and consumer electronics community, and the evolution of the PC.

PressPass: Microsoft describes networked entertainment as giving consumers the ability to access their favorite digital media, such as music, on every speaker and every screen in the home. Based on that scenario, what challenges must be overcome to make that a reality?

Flanagan: We have to take the networking technology to the next level and continue to advance the PC platform. We have to provide quality-of-service mechanisms so we can ensure high quality audio and video experiences even when the home network is experiencing a high volume of traffic. We have to continue to innovate with wireless technology. We are working hard to ensure that we can reliably deliver high-quality video over wireless networks that support standard computer and Internet traffic as well. While we are improving these technologies we need to continue to reduce the cost of basic media and networking hardware components so rich media networking can be brought to market in a wide range of devices and reasonable price points.

PressPass: What will it take to bring the industry closer to true interoperability between computing devices and consumer electronics products?

Flanagan: It’s critical that we understand how important digital media is to people. Today, many people are documenting the important moments of their lives with digital pictures and video. Using the power of the PC, they are collecting and arranging music in ways that are more meaningful to them. For example, in May 2002, Forrester Research, Inc. published a report that said 63 percent of PC owners listened to music on a PC, 67 percent used a PC to edit and manage personal photos, and 44 percent used a PC to watch DVDs.

Now, it’s our job to make it easy for people to enjoy these experiences any time, anywhere on any device. A recent example of how we can do this is the collaboration between Panasonic and Microsoft to create HighMAT. HighMAT is designed as a new technology that both the CE industry and PC industry can use to solve key problems consumers face today with custom-made CDs and in the future DVDs of their own digital media collections (photos, audio and/or video). A few of the issues are:

  • There is no consistent way for CD and DVD players to read this data.

  • Each interface for finding media is different, and the viewable information, such as playlists, music metadata, and folders with photos or videos, varies depending on what each device supports.

  • When accessing large collections of digital music and photos, it can take several minutes for the DVD or CD player to
    and find what music, photos or video is available after the content has been burned on the CD disc or other physical format;(a typical startup time is 35 seconds, and a worst case is up to 7 minutes)

HighMAT improves interoperability for digital media content between PCs and popular electronic devices such as CD players, car stereos and DVD devices with a dramatically improved method of storing, arranging and playing back personal digital photo, music and video collections on recordable discs such as CD-RW media and now writeable DVD media. There is also synergy between the PC and more than 200 consumer electronics devices that support either music or video files in Windows Media format.

PressPass: How will consumers benefit from having a networked entertainment experience in the home?

Flanagan: Networked entertainment will make it more convenient for people to enjoy the media they want at the time and place of their choosing. It’s no secret that consumers are tired of complicated wiring and multiple remote controls. But physical media are also inconvenient at times. Disks and memory cards can be misplaced. Anyone who’s had the experience of trying to remember if a favorite CD is in the car or somewhere in the house knows this frustration.

The next step is to give people access to that collection of digital media in different rooms. Imagine: one remote control, simple buttons that work with every device, access to all my music, pictures, videos and TV anywhere in my house. It’s a pretty compelling vision. And it’s really not that far from realization. The PC industry has laid the groundwork by developing digital media formats and a PC networking infrastructure. Now we need to package the technology into products that are easy for consumers to buy, install and use.

We believe that this convenience will extend beyond the house in the future. Imagine driving into your garage and your car automatically updates its media collection over a wireless network connection with the computer in the house. It’s not farfetched — I work with people who have put together their own systems like this, using products that are available today.

PressPass: What role will Microsoft play in helping the industry reach this goal of networked entertainment?

Flanagan: Microsoft will play a pivotal role in making networked entertainment a reality. We have many years of experience building software applications that help people access digital media easily. We have deep knowledge of media technology, networking technology and the Internet. We know how to bring these technologies together to create a platform. By providing this platform to the industry, we enable our partners to harness all that technology to bring innovative products to market. Making it easy for our partners to bring to market the networked entertainment products that consumers are going to love is our mission.

PressPass: How can industry members participate in bringing the networked entertainment vision to life?

Flanagan: There are a few really important things the industry needs to do. First, we need to establish some baseline of device interoperability. Consumers should be able to buy networked media products at their local electronics store or department store, bring them home, turn them on and use them without having to install special software on the PC or follow complicated setup instructions.

Working with Microsoft and the Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) Forum is a great place to start. The UPnP Forum is a place where PC and consumer electronics industry leaders can come together and work on developing specifications and control protocols that will make it possible to enjoy media devices over networks. A lot of good work has been done in that group, and in the future our hope is that all network devices are at least compatible with UPnP specifications.

While the first step is to better enable people to take their personal media collections on CDs or DVDs, the ultimate next step is to create a seamless experience through networked devices to tap the power and rich experiences of the PC. The key is to do this in a way that they can be implemented cost-effectively on a wide range of devices. We have made good progress here with support for WMA, WMV, MP3 and HighMAT, but need to continue to work with both the PC and CE industries to create an infrastructure, including file standards, which support the popular methods of audio and video compression and security technologies with the goal of making it easy for consumers to exchange data among devices.

Finally, we need to make the home network a platform for innovation. There is no way we can anticipate all the applications and services people might want. The home network must be a platform for entrepreneurs to find new ways to delight consumers. One of the best ways to enable this platform is to build devices that can project the experience of applications running on the PC.

PressPass: How do the various technologies that Microsoft discussed at WinHEC this week play into the network entertainment roadmap?

Flanagan: Microsoft, together with the hardware industry, is advancing the PC by developing innovative design points that will address user needs and desires. For example, we highlighted a Media Center TV client prototype technology that distributes the integrated media and entertainment experiences found in Windows XP Media Center Edition to any display in the home. We also spoke about content directory services, which will enable hardware manufacturers to more easily bring to market devices that can access and play PC media files over home networks. As part of our overall networked entertainment roadmap, these technologies are the first steps toward providing consumers even more options for enjoying their digital entertainment experiences.

In addition, we discussed Universal Audio Architecture, an initiative led by Microsoft that will provide built-in audio drivers that raise the audio quality on the PC and Media Transport Protocol, allowing manufactures of portable media players and jukeboxes to interchange data with the PC seamlessly. Also, as I mentioned earlier, HighMAT combines rich menus for navigation for your personal music collection, home videos and photos in a format that is much easier for devices with lower processing power like CDs, DVDs, and car stereos — which includes easy-to-navigate folders and thumbnails for your media collections when viewed on TVs or small displays on car stereos

PressPass: What role will Windows XP Media Center Edition play?

Flanagan: Windows XP Media Center Edition makes digital media more accessible, more convenient and more fun. Media Center Edition revolutionizes how people use digital media because it combines music, pictures, television recording and DVD in one simple experience that can be operated from anywhere in the room, using a single remote control. If we want to really delight consumers, this is exactly the kind of experience we should be delivering over home networks.

PressPass: Who are the industry partners Microsoft is working with to bring these technologies to market?

Flanagan: Microsoft is working with a lot of industry leaders to make home networking a reality. The UPnP Forum’s A/V Working Group contains 570 members including companies like Panasonic, SONY, Philips, SHARP, Hewlett-Packard, and Intel. HighMAT is already enjoying early adoption from 13 different CE-industry and software companies like Panasonic, Apex, JVC, Pinnavle, Pinnacle Systems, Inc., Sonic Solutions, today we announced Roxio and Creative Labs. Add in the more than 200 devices already supporting Windows Media today and over 60 companies that are using Windows Media 9 Series to build unique and powerful digital media products and services, and you get a sense of how this digital ecosystem is evolving. Also, several companies are shipping PCs that are powered by Windows XP Media Center Edition, including; HP, Gateway, Alienware, and Viewsonic.

PressPass: How do other, non-Microsoft technologies fit into this roadmap?

Flanagan: The home network is about PC/CE interoperability. This means the network must be a platform that hosts a wide range of technologies. Microsoft is helping to enable that. For example, MP3 by Steinberg is one of the compression types specified in HighMAT and is supported natively in Windows. In contrast, MPEG2, the compression format for DVD and digital broadcast television, is not included in HighMAT or in other Microsoft formats and is licensed separately from Windows. But MPEG2 can be easily used in the media playback and networking infrastructure of Windows. MPEG2 is the compression type used by the television recording feature of Windows XP Media Center Edition. Still another example is IEEE1394. Some new consumer electronic devices, such as digital set-top boxes and digital televisions, will have this connector. For these devices Windows offers strong support for the AV/C command set and the IEC61883 protocols. The key point is this: The PC can provide great value because it can connect and bridge devices that support different technologies, and can manage media content and make it accessible over the network.

PressPass: How does this networked entertainment vision relate to this new breed of home computer?

Flanagan: We have great data from user studies that show how much people like and use Media Center PCs and how much they want to get that experience in more rooms of the house. We are very encouraged by the user studies we have.

But for me, the most compelling example of the impact of the Media Center PC is my own family. Before we got Media Center, my wife lamented about the shoeboxes of photos, on CDs or on paper, that were strewn about the house and how we have to
“get them organized.”
She nearly quit using the camera. Now she uses the camera a ton because the pictures are available on the TV — where she often is in the house and where they can be shared in social settings. She can have them as a background slide show when listening to music. She can show them to friends at the touch of a button. And because she shows more photos to friends and family, she ends up printing more photos.

Also, my wife used to like to watch
“The Osbornes.”
It comes on late when I’m usually working on my computer. We kind of separated at night. Now she records the show and we watch it together at a time that suits us both.

Any media product that makes me want to consume more media and increases the quality time I spend with my family is a product that definitely gets my vote. Making these Media Center Edition PCs available over home networks is an excellent way for us to fulfill the desires of consumers.

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