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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

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October 22, 2007 10:44 AM

The PS3 as media center, and the Xbox response

Posted by Brier Dudley

Apparently Sony isn't the only company accelerating plans to turn its game console into a digital media center, the subject of today's column.

A Toshiba executive dropped a big hint that Microsoft's taking the Xbox in the same direction, adding a TV tuner and an internal high-def HD-DVD drive.

On Friday I asked Microsoft if it has plans for an internal HD-DVD drive to respond to Sony. A spokeswoman said no, there are no plans to do this with the Xbox 360, but I asked the question the wrong way: I shouldn't have said "360."

I think the Toshiba guy is talking about something beyond the 360, perhaps a next generation Xbox that probably won't be called the 360. It will naturally incorporate the latest technology, which would include a high-def DVD player and more video features.

One place Microsoft would have an edge is in the program guide that it has licensed for the Media Center. I don't think Sony has anything comparable.

Here's the quote from Molly O'Donnell, the top spokeswoman for the Microsoft group that includes Xbox:

Microsoft has no plans to integrate an HD DVD player in to Xbox 360. Offering the HD DVD player externally is the best way to give consumers the ultimate choice to create their own high definition experiences.

Here's the Toshiba Xbox story uncovered by Smarthouse, an Australian publication. An excerpt:

The new Xbox device, while allowing for extensive gaming capability, will be positioned as an entertainment hub that includes gaming and extensive wireless networking capability as well as 1080p playback. There is also talk of it including a dual HD TV tuner and EPG capability and a docking port for an MP3 player. For Toshiba, the device is critical if it is to be successful in beating Sony and the Blu-ray promoters.

But what if we're not hearing about a new Xbox, per se?

I wonder if it really is a new Xbox or instead a hard-drive-based DVR that includes an HD-DVD drive and also Xbox gaming capabilities.

Microsoft has licensed its Media Center interface to other DVR manufacturers -- LG, a few years ago -- but it hasn't yet licensed core Xbox features to consumer electronics companies.

Licensing the Xbox platform to CE companies makes sense though -- it's software, really -- and other companies would share the marketing and distribution costs and Microsoft would still get the cream from selling games. It's drastic, but the group is under huge pressure to get profitable.

It may also be payback for Toshiba, which helped get the first Zune off the ground.

Some say the Toshiba announcement is imminent, but I wonder if we'll hear about it at CES in January with plans for a 2008 launch. The show is the perfect place for Microsoft to announce plans to license parts of the Xbox platform.

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Gadgets and games | Fun stuff I've written about lately includes Apple's iPhone, Hewlett-Packard's HDX laptop and Microsoft's Halo3. Also on the radar are new digital video boxes such as the Tivo HD and the Vudu.