One of two major product announcements Microsoft made at the 2003 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Microsoft "Media2Go" is a platform for portable media players that will begin shipping from OEMs such as Viewsonic in late 2003. From a practical standpoint, Media2Go is essentially a video iPod, albeit with understandably larger dimensions. The devices themselves were codeveloped with Microsoft partners such as Intel, which designed the original prototype device, but Microsoft was solely responsible for the software side. In this preview, we'll take a look at Media2Go, both from a platform perspective, and from how it works in everyday use.

Media2Go, a platform for mobile media

The Media2Go software platform is based on a completely new computing infrastructure developed from scratch by Microsoft Research. This new platform, the TinyCLR, extends .NET tools and architecture to the smallest devices and is modeled after the desktop version of .NET runtime environment, but is highly optimized for small devices. TinyCLR includes a real-time microkernel. "It will always be upgradeable," Debby Fry Wilson, Director of Windows Embedded at Microsoft told me, "to avoid obsolescence." So, for example, if Microsoft releases new versions of its Windows Media Audio (WMA) and Video (WMV) codecs with better performance or additional features, Media2Go owners will be able to upgrade their devices to the new technology.

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Clearly, with a mobile device, battery life is the chief concern, especially when you consider the processor- and hard drive-heavy tasks Media2Go is designed to facilitate through its 4-inch color LCD screen (minimum, OEMs can choose to make devices with larger screens). Microsoft tells me, however, that Media2Go devices will deliver up to 6 hours of life playing back full-screen video, or 12 hours on audio, which is fantastic (if true).

On the hardware front, Media2Go devices can have 5 GB or larger hard drives, though Microsoft is hoping that OEMs deliver at least 20 GB hard drives with the units. With a 20 GB hard drive, it's possible to store up to 8000 WMA 9 songs encoded at 64 Kbps (or about 4000 songs at the more acceptable 128 Kbps encoding rate), 175 hours of WMV 9 video recorded at 320 x 240 resolution (the minimum full screen size of a Media2Go device; some OEMs might use higher resolutions) and 500 Mbps encoding, or 30,000 2 mega-pixel (MP) digital photos. That's a lot of media no matter how you slice it, thanks to the small encoding sizes of the WMA and WMV 9 formats. Media2Go devices will support USB 2.0 for connection to the PC; Firewire is an optional connection that some OEMs may adopt as well.

Additionally, all Media2Go devices will feature a video-out port so that video and photo displays can be outputted to larger displays, such as TV sets. To differentiate their models, some OEMs might offer unique features, such as an integrated DVD player, or wireless networking capabilities.

A familiar interface to digital media

From an end user perspective, the software in Media2Go looks like a simplified version of the Windows XP Media Center Edition (XP MCE) interface. The Welcome screen features bright green buttons with choices such as My Music, My Videos, My TV Shows, My Pictures, and Settings. While most of these are obvious, the My TV Shows options bears some explanation. Microsoft is going to provide special links for XP MCE owners so that you can easily and quickly copy recorded TV shows from your Media Center PC to the portable devices, making this content more easily accessible for those on the go. "The interface is very simple," Wilson said during a demo I received at CES. "And it interacts with the metadata information stored in the media files" to provide accurate information about each photo, song, or movie. This includes recorded TV shows from Media Center, incidentally.

For synchronizing with a PC, Microsoft will provide Media2Go users with a new version of Sync & Go, which debuted in Plus! Digital Media Edition (DME, see my review). This software will allow users to customize which content is synchronized between a PC and the portable device. And you can synchronize and charge the unit at the same time, Microsoft says.

Availability

Four of Microsoft's partners--Viewsonic, Samsung, Sanyo, and iRiver--have already signed on to deliver Media2Go devices in time for Holiday 2003, but I expect more partners to be announced in the near future. Additionally, Microsoft is talking to content partners about delivering digital media content specifically for Media2Go owners. To understand some off the possibilities, consider the Plus! Sync & Go tool from Plus! DME. This tool lets Pocket PC owners automatically synchronize with daily, weekly, or monthly video content from MSNBC, CBS News, and other content providers. Now imagine that video content in the larger resolutions and quality sizes made possible by the Media2Go's hard drive. I suspect this aspect of Media2Go will be pretty exciting, and more fleshed out by the spring.

Pricing has not been set. I'm hoping to see prices in the $500 to $700 range, which might be a bit optimistic, based on the prices of iPods, Smart Displays and Pocket PCs. However, I think it's important for pricing to be realistic, since there are many portable video players hitting the market this year, from a variety of hardware makers. Hopefully, Media2Go will benefit from the cost economics of the Microsoft business model.

Also, note that Media2Go is a codename only, and the final product name could be different.

Conclusions

As a digital media enthusiast and frequent business traveler, I'm genuinely excited about Media2Go and am looking forward to getting my hands on a pre-production model for long-term review. We live in a truly wonderful age, and Media2Go is a necessary, evolutionary step in getting digital media content--photos, movies, songs, and recorded TV shows--off the PC, and into our hands, wherever we might be at the time. While digital video recording (DVR) devices like TiVo have made it possible to digitally time-shift TV content, Media2Go takes this capability to the next level, allowing us to digitally time-shift and space-shift. And if the price is right, it could be a breakthrough product.

I want one. What more can I say?