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Windows Media Center survives in shrinkwrap purgatory

Batteries not included, Sopranos not recordable

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Microsoft's Media Center has survived the New Year cull, but it now looks set to inhabit the strange zone of purgatory between being a fully-marketed product and the remaindered bin. Next year Redmond will make a shrinkwrap, software-only version of Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) available to the retail channel, so MCE will in fact be haunting American shopping malls, if only in a similar condition to the zombies in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead - bumping rather aimlessly into things. That's because, sources suggest, the retail edition of MCE will receive as much promotion as the average yard sale.

Microsoft had downgraded Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE), to give its full title, in favor of what has now become a more elaborated, two pronged strategy which places more emphasis on home networking. OEMs were dismayed - to put it diplomatically - to be told of the change of plan days before the CES Show in Las Vegas in January. The show saw a slew of announcements for the just-undead product line, including the debut of Media Center Connector and Extender.

Microsoft has, for once, done a fine job with the user interface: it's cleaner and less cluttered than a digital set top box. But that isn't the problem: Media Center PCs have failed to set the market alight, largely because it's a product in search of a demographic. We've already identified two: people who live in bedsits, and might not have all the bits and pieces to consolidate in the first place. Now we think we've found another demographic. It's someone who can afford a Media Center PC, but who doesn't have, or doesn't mind junking the expensive home entertainment equipment he already has, and who doesn't mind a PC in the living room. And here he is!

You can see how it makes perfect sense, in a let's-get-rid-of-all-this-junk sort of way.

But you're getting less for your money than first appears. In a crisp write-up at Ars Technica's Eric Bangeman points out that although MCE 2005 supports HDTV, and the broadcast flag, it doesn't allow you to time shift cable shows. So not only can't you share music, because the Media Center is a vehicle for Microsoft DRM, you can't record The Sopranos from HBO.

What exactly is the point of this life-enhancing innovation, again?

Selling consumer electronics replacement is never easy: manufacturers must rely on wear and tear, or hope for format changes. So selling something that gives you fewer capabilities, and more restrictions, than what you've already got will require incredibly creative marketing, bloody-minded determination, and an astronomical budget. How well will a retail MCE with little promotion fare? We'll see. ®

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