Home for the Holidays

REDMOND, Wash. — Oct. 22, 2008 — With economic turbulence in the headlines every day, people are getting back to the basics — eating out less, driving less, even shopping at thrift stores. How will this affect the holiday season? A new study conducted by StrategyOne Research and commissioned by Microsoft may provide a glimpse into how people’s plans are shaping up two months out.

According to the study, two out of three Americans admit they will consider spending less money on family and friends this year than they did last year. A vast majority — 81 percent — of adults in households with children are interested in gifts that provide family and friends with entertainment while staying home. Seventy-four percent of those households are also looking for electronics this year.

“Shoppers want to give their family and friends gifts this holiday season that are fun, and can be used daily by the whole family,” says Craig Beilinson, Director of Marketing, Entertainment & Devices Division. “Our research suggests that nearly half of families out there are considering one large family gift as opposed to many smaller individual items. There is a real renewed emphasis on that family experience.”

What kinds of gifts can meet those criteria, while still giving families new ways to stay connected? According to Seattle-based Windows Guru Rohit Rohila, integrated technologies and devices across Microsoft platforms provide more options than ever when it comes to staying in touch, sharing experiences, and finding new ways to have fun spending quality time at home.

Windows Gurus are retail associates specially trained by Microsoft to help people understand which technology products can best provide the features and functions they’re looking for. Gurus focus on creating a personal experience to help customers get the most from their technologies.

“The questions that retail associates have asked traditionally are ‘how much do you want to spend’ and ‘what brand’,” says Rohila. “We ask customers what they want to do with their computers and devices. Are they interested in recording TV programs on their PC? Are they into games or music? Then based off their answers, we help them find a gift geared toward those needs.”

More Ways to Share Music and TV

With the television such an important gathering point in American life, it makes sense that technology would evolve to create new ways to make TV viewing more interesting and convenient.

A June 2008 consumer study conducted by Nielsen and CBS Vision regarding TV viewing habits via the PC showed that 73 percent of respondents were interested in watching TV on their computer. Additionally, when asked about recording TV shows on the PC, 78 percent of respondents showed interest. According to a recent comScore study, 49 percent of Windows Media Center owners say that watching and recording TV on their PC’s is a “must have” feature when choosing their next PC.

Not surprisingly then, Rohila is seeing strong interest in new Media Center PCs, which come with a TV tuner, a full function TV guide and lots of storage space for those can’t-miss programs.

“The convenience of recording television to the PC is just the beginning,” he says. “Once you’ve got the recorded program, you can watch it on your computer, burn it to a CD or DVD, or download it to a Windows mobile phone or other Windows device. Now if you’re going to the doctor’s office, you can catch up on your TV programs while you wait. By recording to the PC and syncing it with your mobile phone, you get the entertainment you really want, wherever you want it.”

Along with TV, technology can also help users share and connect with new music. According to recent data, 42 percent of people think music is a better conversation starter than current events at a party. Almost half say that a person’s music collection says more about who they are than their wardrobe. Forty-three percent of people think there’s a lot of great music out there that they’d like; they just don’t know where to find it.

For music enthusiasts, the Media Center PC and devices such as Microsoft’s Zune offer a host of interesting ways to delve deeper into their collections. This year, Zune is offering a new 120 gigabyte model, and the Zune Pass subscription service offers a wealth of services along with millions of tracks for download.

“Zune offers a lot of functionality when it comes to sharing,” Rohila says. “If you and I are friends through Zune Social, I can see your playlists, your songs, what you listen to. If you have similar musical tastes, then I can download some of your content with the Zune Pass.”

Staying Connected

Of the age-groups surveyed by StrategyOne, older adults may be less interested in watching television on their mobile phones, or playing the latest video game. But one priority they share with all age groups is the ability to stay in touch with those they care about — 59 percent said they will look for a gift this year to keep family and friends connected.

And while ease of use may have been a concern for many of the less tech-savvy among us, according to Rohila, the latest technologies of today have knocked down those barriers to enable just about anyone to easily communicate and share their experiences.

“We have a lot of customers who are a little older, and they are often blown away at how easy it is to take pictures and create movies and DVDs today,” he says. “Up until they see it, they don’t always realize that something so powerful can be done so easily. They knew this existed, but didn’t realize it’s within their grasp.”

According to Rohila, anyone who can’t be with family this year can easily take pictures of their holidays and make DVDs to mail out. The Movie Maker application available in Windows Vista allows users to easily create slideshows and publish them on a DVD complete with menus, soundtracks, transitions and other effects.

“It’s not a lot of steps, and it’s really easy to follow,” he says. “This always generates a lot of excitement when people see it for the first time.”

The same is true for movies shot with a camcorder, he says. For moving pictures, Windows Vista Home Premium and Ultimate editions even provide the option to send movies via e-mail in a compressed file format.

For more direct lines of communication, new PCs make it easy to move beyond phone calls and e-mail to home video conferencing and chat. The new StrategyOne data shows that this ability is being used much more often now, with 20 percent growth over last year to more than 31 million users.

According to Rohila, such cameras have also become much more user friendly, and Microsoft offers a line of web cameras with a wide choice of quality and price.

“You press a button, and Windows Live opens up and takes care of you,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of people come in and say things like, ‘my grandkids live in Arizona, how can I keep in touch with them?’ I’ll show them a laptop with a camera in it, show them how Windows Live Messenger works to send video clips and do video chats, and they’re very excited about it.”

As far as phone calls and e-mail, today’s mobile phones have tight integration with Exchange to stay in touch with work e-mail and other functions. For personal use, today’s phones integrate tightly with Windows Vista through Vista’s Mobile Device Center, synchronizing files, contacts and other information with a few clicks.

“Plug the phone into your computer, and the Windows Mobile Device Center recognizes the phone and provides syncing options,” says Rohila. “If you want to sync files, music, or even TV programs you’re recording, it will walk you through the Wizards to get that done.”

More than Just Playing Games

Of course, no discussion of holiday technologies would be complete without video games — 86 percent of young adults desire at least one, according to StrategyOne, and a recent Microsoft and Harris Interactive study found that 64 percent of parents would spend more time playing video games if it was an activity the family could do together.

Today more than 19 million Xbox 360 systems have sold across 37 countries. There are more than 14 million Xbox LIVE members worldwide, making the Xbox LIVE community larger than any city in North America. But according to Rohila, beyond its wide adoption, the Xbox also makes sense as a console by virtue of its versatility.

One aspect of that versatility that gives families a chance to communicate and play even if they can’t be together in person is the “Xbox LIVE Party” feature, which allows users to connect to each other while chatting, sharing photos and videos, and of course, playing games.

At its core this feature is an eight-way group voice chat that works over all Xbox 360 games, the dashboard, movies and media center – in short, everything you can do on the console. The members of your party can each be in a different experience.

“The party members are always connected by voice, no matter if one member is playing a game and another member in another location is watching a movie,” says devices director Beilinson. “It also has features to help players get together in multiplayer games. There’s one button in the guide that allows a player to send game invites to everyone in his live party.”

In addition to allowing users to connect via Xbox LIVE Party, the Xbox 360 is evolving to create a unified media center that can extend the family PC throughout the house.

“The thing about the Windows universe is you have integration at its core,” he says. “You can have content on your computer and it works with your mobile phone, your Zune, and even your Xbox. Because of this, more people than ever are using their Xbox as a media extender.”

What this means, he says, is that a computer in the den loaded with media such as songs, home movies, downloaded movies and pictures can be connected wirelessly to an Xbox through the Media Center, enabling users to access those files through the Xbox.

“If you have friends and family over, you can show them pictures from your vacation,” he says. “You can add music streaming. You can watch the prerecorded TV you have on your PC. Because it’s so tightly integrated, a lot of people are starting realize that the Xbox 360 is more than just a gaming console. It’s also a media center built around Windows Vista.”

And according to Rohila, none of that detracts from what Xbox was built to do in the first place — play games. With more than 200 family-friendly games available on Xbox 360, families have more options to play together than on any other console.

“You’ve also got a lot of Xbox 360 games coming out now that are more family friendly, like Rock Band 2, that are meant to be played with multiple people,” Rohila says. “That’s a direction that video games are going in, the ability to share the experience. Xbox LIVE also adds to that.”

And as for the PC itself, people worldwide spent more money on PC gaming than on any other game platform in 2007. In total there are more than 285 million people gaming on their PCs, and Windows is forecasted to be the No. 1 gaming platform for years to come.

Add it all up, and technology may end up being the number one gift for families this year.

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