Windows Based Portable Media Centers Approach Release

Microsoft's would-be "iPod killer" is scheduled to arrive in Europe by year's end. Windows Mobile Software for Portable Media Centers -- formerly code-named Media2Go -- extends the Windows Media Center family beyond the desktop, in addition to broadening the music only paradigm that characterizes many of today's portable media devices.

Redmond has taken the Portable Media Center (PMC) beyond music to include video playback, support for still imagery and talking "photo story" slideshows. New Smart Sync technology synchronizes PMC devices with Windows XP and Windows Media Player 9 to manage, transfer, and sort audio and video files.

Microsoft claims that the compression technology built into its Windows Media 9 Series enables up to 175 hours of video, 10,000 songs, or as many as 100,000 pictures to be stored on a single 40 GB device. To fill up their hard drive, European customers will be offered premium content from Microsoft partners EMI music and Napster.

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After the first wave of PMCs are made available by Creative Technology and iRiver International, other equipment manufacturers including Samsung, SANYO and ViewSonic will ship products loaded with localized versions of the software by the second half of 2004.

Portable Media Center products join Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 and Media Center Extender as part of a wider effort by Microsoft to enter the realm of home entertainment. Portable Media Centers are built atop Windows CE .NET, and developed on Intel's XScale technology reference design.

Commenting on the release, Todd Warren, corporate vice president of the Embedded Devices Group at Microsoft, said, "Portable Media Centers give people the freedom to take their entertainment from their PC wherever they go. With entertainment content available from powerhouses like EMI Music and Napster, European consumers will have access to a variety of movies, TV programs and music that they can transfer to their Portable Media Centers."

Whether or not Portable Media Centers will be among next holiday season's hottest gifts is a topic open for some debate. Microsoft delayed Media2Go by a year; the software was originally intended to launch in time for the 2003 holiday season. Some industry analysts speculate that this delay was influenced by consumer buying behavior.

"Our data clearly shows that portable video is not a feature consumers are seeking right now. For the foreseeable future, the greatest portable media player demand will be music. One of the biggest hurdles is conversion/consumption. Right now, video is where audio was in about 1997. The amount of time necessary to convert video for portable playback simply is too long for mass adoption,” Jupiter Research senior analyst Joe Wilcox told BetaNews.

In the meantime, the success of Apple's iPod music player has led to the meteoric rise of the iTunes Music Store and has proven the viability of the business model. Competitors including Virgin, Dell, Microsoft, RealNetworks, and even Wal-Mart are now attempting to emulate Apple's success with their own services. 

Apple recently revealed that it has sold in excess of 50 million songs online to date, and remains the market leader.

"I don't see an iPod killer from Microsoft on the horizon, not if it's Portable Media Center, which has a size and features geared for video," said Jupiter's Wilcox.

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