Microsoft was today showing off PCs running its proprietary Windows Media Centre Edition operating system for the first time in the UK. But, despite hiring out one of London's most exclusive venues for the event, there seems little point in the fanfare around the devices as it could be the best part of a year before UK consumers can actually get their hands on one.
Microsoft wouldn't be drawn on a European launch, stating only that the initial markets would be the UK, France and Germany. "I wouldn't want to tell you they'll be available in December and then they don't appear until February," said Jodie Cadiuex, Microsoft's eHome division marketing manager.
HP launched the first Windows XP Media Centre Edition PCs in the US last autumn and PC Advisor was anticipating Microsoft would announce European launch dates at its briefing today. In the US, PCs loaded with the OS are now available for as little as $1,499 (£961), though around $2,000 (£1,285) is more usual.
Media Centre Edition PCs are Microsoft's take on the 'home entertainment hub'. A PC preloaded with the operating system is remotely controlled and has a simple onscreen menu that lets users view slideshows of their digital photos, create and playback DVD films, operate a digital jukebox using Windows Media Player and view, schedule, pause and record live TV programmes to the hard disk.
To perform all these tasks, manufacturers will need to come up with Pentium 4 machines housing a TV tuner card and infrared support as well as high-performance graphics and sound cards and DVD hardware. Hard disk capacity in excess of 120GB is necessary to cater for the amount of TV recordings your average coach potato or overworked executive is likely to want to store and watch.
The current plan is that consumers will be able to buy dedicated Media Centre Edition PCs with the operating system preinstalled though, as with the European launch date, it seems there is some discussion over this.
In December, Microsoft told PC Advisor that "Our goal all along has been to make the Media Centre experience easy for customers to use and enjoy. We concluded we'd best meet our customers' needs in a new machine that's ready to use, rather than an upgrade option where they have to purchase extra hardware and open the case to install it."
Today, however, Cadieux conceded that Microsoft is now "open to the idea" of selling the OS as an upgrade option eventually, though the specifications are high and the number of necessary hardware additions may mean a preloaded system is a more attractive option for most consumers.
In the US, Media Centre Edition PCs are now being churned out under 24 different manufacturers' badges, indicating that there is plenty of demand for systems that act as all-in-one home entertainment machines. And Microsoft claims that converged home entertainment systems are a vital part of its ongoing strategy. Having spent years ensuring PC users could do more with greater speed, it is now focusing on ease of use and an intuitive interface. The remote control and the new OS are at the centre of this new approach.
According to Cadieux, the operating system is even proving popular as a highly-specified notebook geared up for gaming and there is interest from business users who want to choose what they watch when flying or staying in hotels.
Microsoft claims a European launch is on hold while it accommodates the different UK TV standard and works out language customisation issues surrounding the electronic programme guides used to schedule your Media Centre-based TV recordings.