During the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in early January 2002, Microsoft unveiled two technologies--code-named Freestyle and Mira--designed to extend the reach of Windows PCs from the office into the far larger and more lucrative living room. The plan, launched through the company's eHome Division, aims to leverage the power and intelligence of the PC while offering simplicity and convenience for consumers.

Currently, PCs are powerful, but limited to specific tasks. As we move toward a more connected world where digital media experiences such as music, photos, and movies are used more and more with PCs, it makes sense to bring that machine into other areas of the house. Windows XP Media Center Edition ("Freestyle") addresses this need. With Windows XP Media Center Edition, a new generation of TV-based PCs, or PCs used in smaller living areas such as dorm rooms and apartments, is made more viable thanks to a simple new user interface. Somewhat predictably, Microsoft calls these PCs Media Center PCs.

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Windows XP Media Center Edition will only be available from the few PC makers that elect to ship Media Center PCs. The software is basically Windows XP Professional Edition Service Pack 1 (SP1) with an optional digital media user interface that's specifically designed for use with a remote control. Since most of the OS is identical to XP Pro, we'll focus on the digital media stuff in this preview. Let's take a look.

Freestyling into the Living Room

I received my first Windows XP Media Center Edition preview the morning before Gates' CES 2002 keynote address and found myself immediately impressed. eHome Division general manager Kevin Eagan told me that Freestyle builds on the foundational digital media technology in Windows XP and enables a simple user interface for those digital media tasks that can work with a remote control, rather than a keyboard and mouse.

"The PC is moving out of the home office and into the den," Eagan told me. "It's a complete UI that separates the old 'two foot interface' from the new, remote-enabled 'ten foot interface.' It extends the attraction of the PC. The remote control is for 'consumption mode' but I don't necessarily want to edit my home videos with it."

So Windows XP Media Center Edition provides a very simple user interface  that obviously harkens back to the standard XP interface style, which is not a surprise since XP UI guru Joe Belfiore is now working for the eHome Division. Users can connect a Media Center PC--available from Samsung and HP this year--to a television set and home stereo and use a remote to view home videos , music  and photos , watch DVD movies , and program Digital Video Recorder (DVR) capabilities  through a nice onscreen program guide . And the DVR allows you to watch, pause, and record live TV like you would with a TiVo or Ultimate TV device.

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The key here, I think, is the interface and the underlying power of the PC. The interface is simple yet stunning, and it seems that Microsoft has really thought through all the tasks you'd want to perform. For example, you can listen to a music playlist while displaying a photo slideshow on the TV. What the PC brings is storage and versatility. You can store your music, photos, and videos on its hard drive, and access network resources as well, if you have other PCs at home elsewhere in the house.

For Windows XP Media Center Edition to successful, however, a new generation of stereo component-like PCs will need to be created. Microsoft says that these Media Center PCs are on the way.

"We're working with leading consumer PC makers such as Hewlett-Packard, Samsng, and NEC and are very focused on delivering this technology in consumer PCs," Eagan told me. "But XP provides a whole new platform for reliable devices; we can build on top of and expand the ways we can deliver experiences to consumers." In July 2002, eHome Vice President Mike Toutonghi clarified the PC maker support. "HP and Samsung will release Media Center PCs in time for Holiday 2002, in time for Christmas shopping," he told me. "NEC will release a system in Japan next year."

Shipping Freestyle only as part of a new Windows XP version is somewhat controversial. Toutonghi admitted that this was something consumers would have to get used to. "We're shipping Freestyle as a new XP version because it really pushes what's possible on modern video hardware, and most users would have a bad experience if they tried to use it on their current PCs." Microsoft really believes that Media Center PCs are a viable new business, one that is best served by a specific Windows version.

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Eagan told me that Microsoft had a two phase schedule for rolling out the technology. First, during the current "anywhere in the room phase," the company will expand PC relevance with a remote control interface so that you can use a PC in your living room; this is the product that will ship in late 2002. Then, the company will build on networking features like 802.11b and power line networking to deliver rich experiences anywhere in the room. The PC, he said, is key because it can offer both security and entertainment. "Nowhere is innovation happening more rapidly than with the home PC," he said. "It's gotta be plug and play, and offer an out of box experience where the consumer can expect it to work easily, and just start using it."

The Freestyle Hardware Dilemma

Originally expected to begin in April 2002, the Freestyle beta was delayed until late June 2002. The problem, Microsoft told me, is that Freestyle won't even install on a PC that doesn't include TV tuner hardware and a specific IR hardware, which enables the remote control compatibility. "If you think about it, we've been pretty lucky until this point," said Aaron Woodman, the Lead Product Manager for Consumer Vision and Strategy at Microsoft. "It's simple to distribute software betas via CD or download. But Freestyle requires specific hardware." Freestyle has been upgraded somewhat since January, however, to include keyboard and mouse navigation and a windowed mode that allows the Freestyle UI to appear in a normal application window on the XP desktop.

At the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2002 in April 2002, Microsoft announced that it would be creating a reference design for the Freestyle remote control, the Windows Remote Control, which will feature a Windows button and specific Freestyle-related functionality. PC makers that ship Freestyle machines will bundle such a remote. The beta remotes I've seen do include a Start button, but overall the beta remotes are pretty nondescript; that will change.

"The Windows Remote Control is designed for freestyle UI, and it defines a set of buttons that users can count on," said Mike Toutonghi, Windows eHome Corporate VP of the New Media Platforms Division at Microsoft during a WinHEC presentation. "It's a reference design that describes the mappings of specific buttons. We worked with the Philips RC6 infrared remote technology and will initiate a future logo program so that this common IR protocol can be made available to our partners. The Windows button launches the [Media Center] UI."

Another related announcement concerned Microsoft's support of Bluetooth, a wireless technology. Woodman told me that Microsoft would ship Bluetooth-enabled mice and keyboards later this year, which could potentially be used with Freestyle PCs.

Conclusions

Windows XP Media Center Edition was released to manufacturing on September 3, 2002, and Hewlett Packard PCs based on this design will ship in mid-October. It's clear from my hands-on time with prototype Media Center PCs that this technology will usher in a new era of PC computing, and it's exciting to see the market changing into something that will benefit a far bigger audience. I'll have a full XP Media Center Edition review, based on my experience with the Freestyle beta and the final version of the HP Media Center PC, available by mid-October.