Microsoft Could Boost PC Video in ’06

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Plans by Microsoft Corp. could, within a year, test the cable industry’s willingness to market video packages that reach beyond the television into personal computers.

Time Warner Cable is testing such a service for video subscribers in parts of San Diego, and Comcast Corp., among other cable companies, has said it’s looking at the feasibility of extending video bundles to non-TV devices.

In November, CableLabs approved an OpenCable Applications Platform-related specification that will allow Microsoft to import cable signals on a new version of its Windows XP Media Center software.

WATCH CABLE ON PC

The aim is to let viewers watch a wider range of cable channels on a personal computer, via the new Media Center edition slated for a second-half 2006 debut .

It’s possible to view cable channels on the existing Media Center, but only by running an extra cable out of the set-top — and high-definition channels aren’t compatible with the current Media Center, but could be viewed on next year’s version.

By this time next year, marketers will make this proposition: a consumer who buys a new Media Center-enabled PC and an associated OpenCable Unidirectional Receiver (OCUR) with a CableCard slot can watch a robust cable-TV lineup on his or her computer.

Porting cable video to other devices was always part of the industry’s OpenCable vision, said Don Dulchinos, senior vice president of advanced platforms and services at CableLabs. That’s a recognition that consumers want the ability to view media in different places and with an eye to telephone companies promising Internet-protocol television, or IPTV, video services, transmitted in a method that can be distributed to computers and other devices.

“We [cable companies] want to be on that train,” Dulchinos said. “But it is important to do it on our terms.”

Microsoft has been working with CableLabs for more than a year to develop the right interface to link the TV and PC.

What they came up with was OCUR. The device is the size of a wireless router, and features a cable input port, to connect the device to the TV or set-top, and an Ethernet port, to connect to the PC tower.

It’s also conceivable, Microsoft said, that the OCUR device could be built into PCs.

OCUR includes the key digital-rights interface that protects cable signals once they reach the PC domain, Dulchinos said.

The provider-supplied CableCard reads the TV signals coming through the OCUR device and decrypts them. Those signals are then re-encrypted in Microsoft Windows Media’s digital rights-management system for the PC. Microsoft said its rights-management software will be present in both the OCUR device and the computer.

“Re-encryption is the key piece to protect content,” Dulchinos said. “The interface has to have good security,” but must still render the cable signals at a quality comparable to a television set.

“The second piece is: what does the PC do with it?” Dulchinos said. Microsoft will license a new version of its Media Center software to computer manufacturers.

“The PC has to protect the content, just like any other device,” he said.

Ron Pessner, senior director of the Windows Client Extended Platforms Group at Microsoft, said new Microsoft Media Center software enabling cable viewing will be part of the new Windows Vista software release, available in the second half of 2006.

NO NEW SCREENS

Pessner said he couldn’t comment on how Microsoft would market the cable viewing feature of Media Center, and it’s unclear how hard cable will market the feature.

Consumers would access cable channels through the Media Center extended program guide, Pessner said. “You won’t have any new screens. You’ll access your TV shows just as you would on today’s Media Center PCs, except that you’ll now have access to premium digital cable channels and high-definition signals you previously could not view or record. You will have the same guide functions, same movie index, just added ability to view and record these channels without aid of an additional set top box.”

Pessner also said the OCUR device could be extended to allow viewing of cable channels via the new Xbox 360 video-game console.

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