Microsoft Releases Windows Media Extenders

Microsoft Corp. is increasing the range of video formats that PCs running its Windows software can pipe to televisions around the home, with support for a new range of Extenders for Windows Media Center devices from hardware manufacturers.

It expects companies such as Cisco Systems Inc., D-Link Corp. and Niveus Media Inc. to reveal new set-top boxes next month that can play videos or music stored on a PC running the Home Premium or Ultimate editions of Windows Vista. Microsoft's software will stream video in previously unsupported formats such as DivX and Xvid, delivering it to devices around the home over wired or wireless networks.

The new Extender devices could even be capable of streaming "protected" high-definition (HD) video over the latest 802.11n wireless networks, Microsoft said Thursday. Vendors or broadcasters of HD content can protect it from piracy by using DRM (digital rights management) software to restrict the devices on which it can be displayed or stored.

Microsoft's reasoning in developing these capabilities is that customers want to access the content on their multimedia PCs when they're not in front of the PC.

Apple Inc. realized this in 2004, when it released the diminutive AirPort Express Wi-Fi router with an audio-out socket for streaming music over a Wi-Fi or Ethernet connection from a Macintosh or PC running its iTunes jukebox software, but the following year Microsoft went one better with an add-on pack called Windows Media Center Extender allowing its Xbox game consoles to stream music and video from a Windows Media Center PC.

Manufacturers and buyers have been slow to take an interest in Microsoft's Windows Media Center Extender platform. The best-known Extender is Microsoft's own Xbox 360 game console, of which market-watchers estimate Microsoft has sold around 10 million since its November 2005 launch. By comparison, D-Link said in June 2006 that it had sold just 100,000 of its MediaLounge wireless media players in the first 18 months they were on sale.

But Microsoft is still pushing the idea, now rebranded Extenders for Windows Media Center, collaborating with Cisco, D-Link and Niveus to link their set-top boxes to Vista PCs. In the future, the company plans to work with a broader range of vendors to incorporate the same capabilities directly into other devices such as DVD players and televisions.

There's more to it than a change of name, though: in its Windows Media Center Extender FAQ, Microsoft warns that devices based on the old specification, developed to work with Windows XP, will no longer work with the new system for Windows Vista.

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