Charles Arthur On Technology

Time to think outside the box
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The Independent Online

What does the space around the main TV in your home look like? If you're like most people, there'll be a VCR or a DVD player or both, with a multi-channel input from Freeview, Sky or a cable company. A small number will have a personal video recorder (PVR) such as Sky+ or Tivo, which can record live TV straight on to a hard drive, meaning that you can pause and time-shift a programme while it is being transmitted. You might also have a hi-fi somewhere for all those CDs that you're already thinking are a bit retro, what with iPods and other digital music players.

What does the space around the main TV in your home look like? If you're like most people, there'll be a VCR or a DVD player or both, with a multi-channel input from Freeview, Sky or a cable company. A small number will have a personal video recorder (PVR) such as Sky+ or Tivo, which can record live TV straight on to a hard drive, meaning that you can pause and time-shift a programme while it is being transmitted. You might also have a hi-fi somewhere for all those CDs that you're already thinking are a bit retro, what with iPods and other digital music players.

What you almost certainly won't have is a TV and, next to it, a PC acting as a PVR, DVD player, music player and picture viewer. And that is a source of great pain to the people who make those PCs, known generically as Media Center [sic] Edition PCs, which use Microsoft's Media Center version of Windows XP. For reasons that the marketing people at Microsoft can't seem to fathom, MCE PCs (as they're called) aren't the runaway success they'd hoped for when they were introduced two years ago.

Is this because you can't buy the "MCE XP" operating system separately to soup up an older machine you happen to have hanging around? You have to buy an entire new machine, costing rather more than the average PC. Or do we just not feel like binning all that stuff clustered around our TV in favour of a single box that can't allow you to watch a DVD if you're digitally recording a TV programme, and means that you have to sit right by the TV to send an e-mail?

Such questions don't trouble Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's ebullient chief executive. His expertise has always been on the sales and marketing side. Even so, when he whizzed through London last week, he offered his thinking on where digital entertainment in the home is going. "I think we are close to the tipping point, where we may get a device that can take on critical mass," he said. "There will be an explosion in demand. People weren't sure where these new devices fitted in. At two hundred bucks, maybe, but at three hundred or four hundred bucks, it was too hard to bootstrap the device type."

Like you, I don't know what he meant by that last sentence. The fact is, nothing that Microsoft is offering by proxy to do these tasks - of integrating the watching and controlling of TV - costs that little. Media Center PCs are more expensive because they need larger hard drives (as encoded TV swallows roughly two gigabytes per hour recorded) and better graphics cards.

But Ballmer reckons that Microsoft is about to burst into your living room - or at least American living rooms - and sweep aside all those things clustered around the TV, to replace them with a mixture of software (Windows Media Player 10), online services (Microsoft Network, aka MSN) and portable products such as the Portable Media Center, all rolled into one relentless sales proposition.

"[Consumers] have had media technology built for years - Apple, Sony, RealNetworks have been there for years. What has changed is that now you have the format, the player, the device and the service, and that's what we will have with the launch of Microsoft Media Player 10, the official launch of the Microsoft Network (MSN), and Microsoft's Portable Media Center," Ballmer said.

However, in all this, Microsoft's focus remains not on the customer, but on the companies that might - if they acquiesce - provide content to go on them. Those "big content" companies in Hollywood and Los Angeles (making TV programmes) don't want you and me to record their programmes digitally and then burn them to a DVD and go over to a friend's house to watch them - or, even more awful to contemplate, just make them available over the net.

They thus insisted that Microsoft include "digital rights management" (DRM) systems in the first Media Center PCs that made it impossible to do such things. However, customers revolted - and, for once, Microsoft agreed with them. Media Center PCs can burn DVDs that will play on any machine.

Ballmer, however, doesn't seem to think that customers should be afforded too much elbow-room. He's very keen on DRM - a technology which, unlike most, becomes progressively more infuriating to the consumer the better it does its job.

Indeed, he thinks it's positively irresponsible to make products that don't include the most forceful possible DRM - such as Apple's iPod, which doesn't use Microsoft's DRM system, but a rather weaker one: so much weaker that many people aren't even aware it's there. "We've had DRM in Windows for years," Ballmer said. Has that stopped pirates? "Of course not; nothing does! I mean, what's the most common format of music listened to on an iPod? Stolen! Stolen!"

Even from someone steeped in sales culture, that's an outrageous intentional fib. Ballmer's surely aware that the vast majority of iPod owners have "ripped" their own CDs to MP3 format and synchronised them to their system. You'd need a lot of dedication to accumulate enough tracks from file-sharing to fill an iPod. And you'd be too hard up to afford one.

But, in Ballmer's view - filled, remember, with ambition for Microsoft's growth, which is presently rather sluggish - the iPod's popularity isn't because it has rather gentle DRM, while the default on Windows Media Player is surprisingly aggressive (tracks ripped using it are tied to that specific hardware combination, so don't go changing your video or sound card). No, it's because Microsoft's DRM has been too weak.

"Part of the reason people steal music is money, but some of it is that the DRM stuff out there has not been that easy to use. We are going to continue to improve our DRM, to make it harder to crack, and easier, easier, easier, easier, to use," Ballmer said.

And, he joked: "My 12-year-old at home doesn't want to hear that he can't put all the music that he wants in all of the places that he would like it."

Actually, in this scenario, it seems to me that the person who doesn't want to hear something is Ballmer. His 12-year-old is a typical future user of the systems whose development his father is overseeing. What seems strange is that, rather than looking at his son and asking himself how he can satisfy that desire to put all the music his son wants in all the places he'd like it, Ballmer's trying to rein him in. Small wonder that we're sticking with the boxes we know. They may be dumb, and unable to talk to each other - but that's better than having a smart one that views its owner as a wannabe pirate.

www.charlesarthur.com/blog

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