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MS, partners tout Portable Media Center ‘iPod killer’

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Analysis Microsoft launched its 'Windows for iPods' platform over a year ago - as Media2Go - but this week it began demonstrating the technology in earnest at CeBIT, backed by devices from hardware partners Creative and iRiver.

Now called the Portable Media Center, each gadget features a hefty hard drive and a large-format LCD panel. Microsoft's pitch is that the devices will allow users to take their photos, music and movies with them wherever they go - essentially, we're talking a video iPod.

"We think this is going to be one of the hot devices for Christmas 2004," said James Bernard, Microsoft's product manager for Portable Media Center, according to Reuters. The UK, Sweden and Denmark will see PMCs go on sale first, followed by Germany, France, Italy and Spain by the end of the year.

It's hard not to be impressed with the early models, such as Creative's Zen Portable Media Center or iRiver's PMC-140, with their bright 3.5in display and 40GB storage capacity. They're certainly more attractive than those bulky Archos jobs. But we don't feel Apple has to start worrying just yet.

The Zen, for instance, is expected to retail for between £400 and £450, depending on whether you choose the 20GB model or the 40GB unit. Either way, it's an expensive purchase. Couple that with the limited availability of commercial Windows Media video content, plus the fact that if you want to watch taped TV shows, you'll need a Media Center PC, and the platform's appeal is already limited to wealthy early adopters.

The fact that the battery is going to empty after just three hours' of video playback won't help either. Nor will the absence of way to copy over DVDs to the devices.

What price portability?
Over time, these limitations will be eased, of course. But the question remains, do buyers really want to carry all that content around with them? The success of the iPod shows that they clearly do when it comes to music, and the more they can carry the better. But music is one medium that you can enjoy almost anywhere, while performing almost any task.

Not so movies and photos, which require your direct attention. You can't review last night's episode of The West Wing while cycling into work, for instance. Well, not if you expect to arrive at the office in one piece. Mind that lamppost! And few souls will feel comfortable using such shiny, expensive-looking devices on the subway or the underground.

Music is a medium that can happily co-exist with almost all of one's daily activities. Viewing photos and watching movies tend to require you put aside time for them. That means that there's not only have less to be gained from mobility - if you have to be stationary to view your photos, you're as likely to do so in front of a PC as a PMC - but also the hardware limitations required to gain that level of portability actually reduce users' enjoyment. That's simply not the case with music now, where size limits quantity only, not quality.

Why carry your holiday snaps on a mobile device, when you (a) already have them stored on your PC and (b) the PC's screen or TV is a much better medium to show them? Yes, you can inflict your home movies and family photos on other people, but we suspect people would rather do that by email or recordable CDs and DVDs, than a £500 box.

The killer app?
That leaves video as the 'killer app', but as we've seen content is currently limited, especially since the units have no TiVO-style functionality of their own. As an alternative to using a laptop to watch DVDs on planes, or to standalone portable DVD players, there's some potential, but if you're going to have to carry a notebook anyway, why bring the second, smaller unit with you too?

Nor are they what you'd call compact. The Zen, for example, is twice as long as an iPod and three times as thick. It weighs 330g (11.5oz). So it's not what you'd call pocket size.

Of course, it's foolish to assume that there's a 'one size fits all' winner in any market, and we're sure PMC suppliers will find buyers. We expect them to co-exist with the iPod, not replace it.

PDAs, too. With the smart phone already eating into the PDA's traditional PIM turf, the market for standalone electronic diaries and calendars remains limited, particularly as more mainstream handsets begin to offer better PIM facilities and synchronisation with desktop PIM apps. My Nokia 6600 already means my Tungsten T now gets left at home most of the time. iPods already provide all the PIM tools most users could want.

PalmOne CEO Todd Bradley told us this week that he doesn't see the iPod as a competitor. By extension, he must dismiss the PMC, too. Certainly on size, if not on functionality. But equally - and, we think, conversely - his European lieutenant, Vesey Crichton, expressed the need broaden the definition of 'personal information', to take in all those photos, songs and video clips we consider important to us, as well as the contact details and diary entries.

We agree, but while the PDA perhaps provides the best combination of display quality, performance and form factor, it lacks the hard drive and capacity of more dedicated devices like the PMC and the iPod. As we've noted before, we can see these three categories merging together, with PDAs sporting faster CPUs, more memory and highly capacious yet physically tiny hard drives. Whoever first merges an iPod with a Tungsten E is onto a winner, we reckon. But we don't think the PMC is such a beast.

All these devices will eventually tie into the movie equivalent of Apple's iTunes Music Store, Napster, Wippit, Rhapsody, OD2 etc. Network delivered video is a little way off, but one day it will be as commonplace as music downloads are now. Some folk will want to transfer video downloads to a portable device and one with a large(ish) screen. There the PMC will have a role to play.

As the continuing availability of Casio's micro TVs shows, a lot of buyers will be willing to trade off size for improved portability and cost. But equally, how many of these things do you actually see in use? Portability undoubtedly adds a new dimension to the enjoyment of music. It's going to be much harder to make the same claim for video. ®

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