Keynoting WinHEC today Bill Gates unveiled something you might refer to as what the Windows Media Center PC did next - the Windows Concept PC. This modest effort pitches itself as the centre of digital home entertainment (including TV and Personal Video Recorder capabilities), the media management brains behind content streaming throughout the home, and the centre of home communication, "integrating telephony, e-mail and messaging, and distributing these capabilities throughout the home and beyond to ensure a connected experience."
Adding crimes against the English language to the rap sheet Microsoft tells us that the Concept was designed (in partnership with HP) "to demonstrate and drive innovative advancements in several key areas that specifically target the seamless computing experience for the home." It "represents a conceptualization of the ultimate in-home digital lifestyle hub."
It'll never ship - it is, after all, a Concept. But it clearly shows that although Microsoft unveiled a more plausible device-based approach to the networking of consumer entertainment devices in the home some months back, it still has a deep psychological need to concentrate features and control back in the PC. Platforms Group VP Jim Allchin's WinHEC keynote is pitched as challenging hardware, software and services producers to "take an experience-centric approach to innovation", but if we guess correctly that by this he means look at what users do in the home and build for it, the Concept really does make it look like Microsoft is doing the opposite.
Microsoft's Media Center Extender/Media Connect strategy, announced at CES, was considerably more rational than the strategies it replaced, and gave the PC a perfectly plausible role in the home as a sort of big store of stuff that you want to view and use around your network, and also as a a logical provider of some services to the various content output devices you'd have connected to it. The actual sense of this depends on Microsoft's execution of the strategy, because although a personal computer of some form is currently the most likely-looking candidate for the stuff store, the point of having it there is so that it can interact with other devices and provide them with useful services, not that it should elect itself as the gateway and gatekeeper for those services. So the strategy's viability stands or falls on how much of the functionality Microsoft locks to the PC.
For example, it would seem to us that the "experience-centric approach to innovation in the home" would observe the progress of the set-top box (whose existence is actually catered for in the CES strategy) and the consumer DVD Player/Recorder and note them as devices with a viable future as sources of content in their own right. But the Concept is pitched as having broadband connection and multiple high definition TV tuners, which does seem to indicate that the idea is to roll over these instead, and use A TV with Media Center Extender technology in order to display content that's been routed via the PC.
The centring of email and messaging on the PC isn't quite so illogical; in most homes it'll be centred on that already because (with the exception of a bit of texting on the mobile phone) the PC is probably the only thing that currently does it. And in cases where you do have multiple devices capable of email and instant messaging you're going to want to be able to get to your email wherever you are, and you're going to want to do something cute with IM so that you're 'online' on whichever appliance you're actually at. So something has to arbitrate this for you, and Microsoft is putting in its bid.
But the company's pitch of the PC as the integrator of telephony in the home is surely a pitch too far. Certainly, there are people who feel the need for totally integrated telephony systems in the home, but these are not real people. When the phone rings, real people pick up the phone, not the PC, and they find this no hardship. Real people certainly might be tempted by the attractions of IP telephony, but they will not view this as adequate excuse for the PC to be butting in elsewhere. And in most cases they're entirely unfamiliar with the expression 'single point of failure', so that's not the reason.
So after showing signs of sense, Microsoft seems to be reverting to type and pitching the PC as it. Allchin puts forward "a vision for PCs and devices that will transform them from tools with technical value to vehicles for making people's passions come alive" (when actually what you want is tools with technical value), and tells us: "By building great experiences... we can take the PC beyond the office and the den to places it hasn't been before -- like the living room, kitchen, bedroom, garage or even the wristwatch."
This does not necessarily mean that Microsoft intends to physically put the PC in all of these places, but at the very least it means the company envisions a hegemonic role for the PC in all these scenarios (See? We can speak Microsoftish too, when we want to). But of course there's a reason beyond the ancestral religion for this. As Microsoft is proposing its own Digital Rights Management systems as the mechanism to which will regulate the distribution of digital content to consumers, any home implementation must perforce be underpinned by some form of centralised rights management system. And how better to do this than... the PC? So just you bear that in mind when you're considering inviting one of these things into your living room. ®