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Originally published May 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 27, 2008 at 1:05 AM

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Brier Dudley

Software will change the focus of TV, Microsoft exec says

Microsoft's little engine that could may be its TV group, a unit that has spent more than a decade trying to move the company's software...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Microsoft's little engine that could may be its TV group, a unit that has spent more than a decade trying to move the company's software from computers to televisions, set-top boxes and cable systems.

Microsoft TV hasn't crested the hill yet, but it's getting a boost as TVs become more like computers, content goes digital and broadband ties it all together.Last week the group released a tool kit for its "Mediaroom" TV software platform, and later this year its software will appear in Xbox 360s that British Telecom will offer as set-top boxes.

Driving the train is Enrique Rodriguez, a 20-year TV-industry veteran who previously led the set-top box and modem business at French electronics giant Thomson.

Rodriguez had just retired and moved to Texas in 2003, to be close to his native Mexico, when Robbie Bach asked him to develop entertainment features of the Xbox.

Since then, the TV products were consolidated into Bach's Entertainment and Devices division, and Rodriguez was chosen to lead the unit, producing Mediaroom, Media Center software for PCs and software for devices that extend home networks to TVs in the home.

Here's an edited version of a conversation we had recently about the state of Microsoft's efforts and the direction TV is headed.

Q: What will the living-room TV look like three years from now?

A: It will look just the same — the TV will still be there. ... It may be a little larger, maybe even a little brighter, it will get better resolution and the sound will be better.

But the software experience behind that television will get materially better. The two main things we want to do are, No. 1, make the television a first-class citizen in the home network. Today you have to be a real techie before you make that happen. It needs to be something that happens for every telelvison.

And, No. 2, make the television smart enough to connect to broadband services. Those broadband services have to be smart enough to have a great experience on the television. Making that match, I think, is the main thing you will see change.

Q: Will Microsoft offer its own device for extending home networks to TVs? It used to sell wireless gear to jump-start home-networking.

A: I don't think so. The ecosystem has been quite good. The consumer-electronics business is making this transition, where you see more and more CE devices having an Internet connector. The reality is the consumer still doesn't get a lot of value out of that. From our perspective, the only thing that is missing is better software.

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Q: It seems like you need to make a deal with a major TV maker like Panasonic or Sony to really get your TV software going.

A: There are a couple of ways to go about it. One is you go do a bunch of deals, and we're trying to do that. We've announced a couple of them: Samsung will introduce some extender technology; and Linksys and D-Link and Hewlett-Packard. You can imagine we're trying to expand that.

But ultimately we need to be in a position where this is more of a standard. ... We need to move to a world in which there is a software platform, whether it's a de facto standard or a formal standard, that publishers can trust when they publish their content, a consumer can actually watch it.

Q: We're starting to see more TVs with Ethernet connections. What will Microsoft do next after you can directly connect TVs to the Internet?

A: Ultimately the software; software that they can embed into their device.

The software can do three things. It gives the television a fantastic local user experience — just the fact that the menus look better and all that.

No. 2, it makes the television connected with the rest of your home network. It lets your television be a great consuming device for pictures that are on your laptop or any other media that you have in the house.

Then No. 3, which is the hardest part, it makes your television a great reception point for services that come over the broadband network. That's where we think software can provide the best value and really where the focus of our efforts are, in identifying the right set of technologies.

You've got to make both ends match. You've got to be able to tell publishers, if you do this, your content can be seamless television. And you've got to be able to tell the television provider, if you do this, your television will receive all this great content. Matching those two things is where we believe that we'll have to go.

Q: So will it be five years before most TVs are connected to the Internet?

A: I don't think so; you're starting to see it now. You still don't have this commonality that I'm speaking about, so I would agree with you it will be five to 10 years before we reach a commonality point, but you're starting to see the best examples of that now. I would point to the HP MediaSmart as a great example of that. Sony's doing some interesting stuff there; LG, Samsung.

Some of these are my competitors. Somebody announced they're going to have a YouTube client linked to the TV set. Personally I think that's a bit narrow.

There's no question YouTube is very attractive right now, but I think the right answer isn't to do clients that are specific to one service, but to do a software platform that can accommodate a multitude of services.

Having said that, I actually like the fact that somebody's out there trying out things with YouTube because I think we need to raise the awareness on the consumer side, so they expect their television to do more than just tune Channel 27, and also raise the awareness on the industry side.

Q: Will we see televisions go the way of PC desktops and Web pages, with screens that users can modify by picking and choosing applications?

A: I don't think you can just translate the Internet world to the television. I think if you do just that, you're going to fall short of delivering on the promise. I think delivering on the promise will require maintaining the entertainment purity of television, where, as a consumer, I can generally spend more time entertaining, less time searching for entertainment.

Q: Are we going to see an Xbox with a Blu-ray drive that also works as a digital video recorder?

A: No comment on the Blu-ray stuff. On the DVR side, we are doing that, but we're doing that through Mediaroom. You could say that's the first way we're bringing DVR to the Xbox.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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