Q&A: Microsoft and Sony Team on Digital Entertainment Content Management System

REDMOND, Wash., Oct. 18, 2005 – The kids are asleep. The popcorn’s ready. Time to watch that favorite old movie on DVD. You pop open the case, but instead of “Dr. Zhivago,” you’re staring at a copy of “Dr. Seuss.”

Another misplaced disc, another frustrating search through the entertainment center shelves – it’s one the more familiar and irritating drawbacks of owning large collections of entertainment content stored on DVDs and CDs. But with today’s launch of the Sony VAIO XL1 Digital Living System, a new digital content management product developed in close partnership with Microsoft, movie and music buffs can get back to enjoying their discs instead of playing hide-and-seek with them.

Consisting of a 200-disc media changer and recorder console that connects to a Sony VAIO PC running Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, the Sony VAIO XL1 Digital Living System lets users control their media library in one location using the wireless keyboard and remote control. In addition to storing and indexing up to 200 CDs or DVDs at a time for playback on audio and video devices linked to their home entertainment center through the PC, VAIO XL1 system owners can use the Media Center Edition capabilities to manage content such as downloaded movies and music, digitally recorded TV shows, personal photos and high-definition camcorder video files.

Kevin Eagan, General Manager, Microsoft OEM Division

The challenges involved in tightly integrating Sony’s disc changer, media recording and archiving capabilities, and other feature sets with Media Center Edition required deep – but not unprecedented – collaboration between the two companies. To learn more about this longtime partnership and the work involved in bringing VAIO XL1 to market, PressPass spoke with Mark Hanson, vice president of Sony VAIO of America, and Kevin Eagan, general manager of the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) Division at Microsoft.

PressPass: What are the most impressive capabilities of the VAIO XL1, and what types of consumers is it designed for?

Eagan: Sony has built a product that typifies what its consumer electronics usually stand for: exceptional quality along with a simple, well-integrated user interface. The VAIO XL1 combines an innovative and cost-effective CD/DVD changer with a state-of-the-art Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005-based PC to give consumers one of the coolest, highest-quality living-room entertainment experiences available today.

Hanson: It’s really geared toward consumers who use multiple methods of accessing entertainment content in their home, from television to the Internet to recorded media such as CDs and DVDs. We think the VAIO XL1 will strongly appeal to HDTV (high-definition television) owners who want to more fully exploit the capabilities of that display. Building it on top of Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 also makes the VAIO XL1 extremely flexible and simple to use, which is great news for people who have been frustrated with trying to configure other entertainment PCs on their own because of issues like incompatibility between certain software drivers and consumer electronics devices.

We’ve taken some of the best elements of consumer electronics, such as the multi-disc changer capability, and enhanced them with the programmability and Internet access of PC technology to create a new standard in digital content management. There are lots of digital video recording (DVR) devices today that use hard drives for storing audio and video content, such as live TV programs, and Media Center Edition has that same capability. But with a typical DVR or Media Center PC, at some point you run out of hard drive capacity and have to start erasing older content in order to record something new. With the VAIO XL1’s changer and built-in disc-burning capability, users can quickly archive their content onto DVDs and not only free up their hard drive but also be able to play the content on other devices.

Mark Hanson, Vice President, Sony VAIO of America

Its auto-rip feature also allows users to easily archive their entire music CD collection onto their PC hard drive. For instance, they can just fill the changer with 200 CDs and select the command to copy discs before they go to bed or leave the house. The VAIO XL1 saves all of the tracks and attaches the related metadata available through Media Center Edition – artist and album name, song titles, cover artwork, genre – to the My Music folder in Windows. That way, people can play their music directly off the hard drive and use all 200 slots of the VAIO XL1 disc changer for managing their commercial DVDs, which can’t easily be backed up on a hard drive because of digital rights management protections.

PressPass: How have Sony and Microsoft worked together to tightly integrate the VAIO XL1 with Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005?

Eagan: When the Microsoft eHome team built Media Center, we were primarily focused on supporting the next generation of entertainment services that are Internet-based and not as much on support for something like a DVD changer. So this partnership with Sony resulted in us adding a new layer of functionality to Media Center Edition. I’m very proud of how well eHome and VAIO product teams collaborated on solving challenges like integrating Sony’s disc changer hardware and software right into the Media Center user interface itself, so customers don’t have to open a separate application on their PC to manage and access their DVD content.

Hanson: This process really started a couple years ago, as the VAIO team first identified the key features that we wanted in this product. It was obvious that Media Center Edition possessed most of what we needed to do the foundational work. But there were still some pieces, such as access to the metadata I mentioned earlier through certain parts of the changer functionality and the ability to archive TV shows, that weren’t readily available to us. So our engineering team worked very closely with Joe Belfiore (general manager, eHome) and the rest of the eHome team to identify the best way to integrate those feature sets on top of the MCE operating system. As a result, the operating system works seamlessly with the changer mechanism. For example, we were able to integrate into the Media Center Edition interface itself a new button called “My Changer” that enables a customer to manage the content within the VAIO XL1 changer.

I think it’s remarkable that whenever our product teams encountered a challenge with the VAIO XL1 integration, and there were many, they actively cooperated to overcome it. That is probably the most salient evidence of how strong the relationship between Microsoft and Sony has grown. We recognize that working together on products such as this invariably requires some level of compromise between the groups, and the process of working on the VAIO XL1 took that teamwork to a higher level.

PressPass: What makes Microsoft and Sony ideal partners in providing this new technology with its convergence of consumer electronics and PC capabilities?

Eagan: Consumers trust both companies for their excellent track records in what they each do best. Sony has a reputation of providing high-quality, simple-to-use consumer electronics, and people know that Microsoft delivers reliable, easy-to-use software. As the entertainment content that people want in their daily lives increasingly combines the worlds of consumer electronics, software and computing devices, we think it’s natural that consumers will be attracted to a product such as VAIO XL1 that combines Microsoft and Sony’s respective strengths. Our two brands together send a pretty powerful message to consumers the marriage of software and consumer electronics in the new generation of entertainment PCs is ready for the mainstream.

Through that process of give and take, I think we found a happy compromise that’s great for customers. They get Sony’s high-quality technology around consumer electronics with the VAIO XL1 DVD changer, and it’s made simple to use through its connection to a Media Center PC and management in the standard user interface of Media Center Edition.

I’d also add that over the years, while we haven’t always seen eye to eye on specific standards, in the end it has been our mutual respect for customers and our mutual passion for innovation that has often led to some of our best products when we work together.

Hanson: When we first started developing the Sony VAIO PC in 1996, one of our key focus areas was how to support the movement of analog content such as audio and video into the digital world. Microsoft Windows was really the best platform available to Sony to facilitate the usage, editing, indexing and managing of that content itself. Even back then, Windows contained most of the key functions for network connectivity that we thought would enable the Digital Age. Microsoft provided the right kind of tool set for us, so gravitating toward Windows has been a natural thing for Sony.

PressPass: In the gaming console market, Microsoft XBox and Sony PlayStation compete intensely. Given that rivalry, how have your companies manage to get along so well in the development of VAIO XL1?

Eagan: While we may have very different approaches to certain products, such as with our respective gaming consoles, what allows Sony and Microsoft to work together in other technology areas is a mutual commitment to creativity and innovation in serving our customers. Sony’s investment in research and development of its VAIO PC and the new VAIO XL1 Digital Living System in cooperation with Microsoft makes a pretty strong statement that at its core, Sony recognizes the strength of the Windows XP-based PC as the cornerstone for the digital home. We share the belief that consumer electronics devices, from TVs to video and music players to gaming consoles, can all be made easier to use by setting a PC at the center.

Hanson: Despite having some areas where it competes aggressively with Microsoft, Sony also relishes the opportunities we have to get together on projects such as VAIO XL1, where there’s strong compatibility between our technologies and a great deal of value in uniting our complementary strengths.

PressPass: What else can consumers expect to see from Sony and Microsoft’s partnership in the near future?

Eagan: We know that Sony is going to be a partner that pushes the envelope on customizing and extending Media Center Edition into new areas, just as it has done now with the VAIO XL1. We look forward to seeing how Sony builds on the Media Center platform in the years ahead. For example, I think Sony is one of the best-positioned companies to respond to the huge consumer interest in mobile digital music devices. As a Microsoft Software Partner, Sony has a great opportunity to extend the success of its PC business and its new VAIO XL1 disc changer to other mobile entertainment devices, and even mobile communications devices, that will round out a complete Sony digital home experience.

Hanson: I also don’t see this VAIO XL1 collaboration with Microsoft as being a one-shot deal by any means. Part of the objective behind this project has been to put a new set of features on the market and try to understand how people are using this product, then figure out how we can further improve the user experience over time. VAIO XL1 is a sneak preview of greater things to come. We are not only engaging the Microsoft eHome team but also other Windows product groups to identify areas in which we can be innovative. Sony looks to challenge the industry and put solutions in place that customers really appreciate and want. We think we can gain a lot from working closely with the Microsoft team to accomplish that.

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