Content in motion at CES

Home networking proliferates at Vegas con

LAS VEGAS — Content was on the move at the Consumer Electronics Show Thursday as Sony, Microsoft and TiVo unveiled new products and technologies to help consumers transfer digital content between devices and outside the home.

Hewlett Packard also made news, announcing it’s moving into the digital music market via a partnership with Apple, branding its own version of the company’s iTunes software and online music store and iPod player.

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates previewed his company’s new initiative, called seamless computing, as part of his keynote address. One of the key components of the new home networking line is the Portable Media Center, which allows users to download music, movies and photos to an iPod-like device.

Device will debut in the second half of the year along with an updated version of Microsoft’s Windows Media Player application, with which it will auto-synch.

Sharing wealth of content

Gates also emphasized sharing of content within the home, unveiling new software called Windows Media Center Extender that allows consumers to share content from Media Center PCs and other devices, such as televisions, via an inhouse network. Rather than making consumers buy new set-top boxes to enable TVs to interact with their PCs, however, Microsoft will offer a disc that can be played on its Xbox game console that enables any TV to work as a Windows Media Center device.

“It’s a centerpiece product for our vision of what’s going to go on in the home,” Gates told a packed house. “It’s the extensions to Windows that really define how we see the home of the future.”

Along with its home networking advances, Microsoft outlined yet another strategy for its troubled MSN online service, which has lost hundreds of millions of dollars for its parent company. Abandoning a focus on providing Internet access, MSN will sell a $99-per-year service that includes advanced e-mail, digital photo and security technology for those with broadband access from cable or phone providers.

It’s a move similar to recent shifts by AOL, which is attempting to lure users with separate high-speed access via its exclusive content. But AOL went in the other direction Thursday, announcing a new Netscape-branded dialup service for $9.95 a month that will compete with the popular low-cost offering from NetZero.

Tube on the move

While Microsoft was showing new software, Sony debuted hardware advances, notably a “location-free” portable broadband TV that can pick up signals via wireless connection within and around the home. The 12-inch TV can save images from its screen and acts as a Web browser and digital photo album.

Sony also announced its move into the digital music market, unveiling a line of Walkman-branded portable music players that can both download music and play burned CDs. The devices are designed to work with Sony’s Connect online music service, which will launch in the spring with pricing and content similar to competitors.

Meanwhile, TiVo unveiled its much-anticipated line of products to share content recorded on its set-top boxes with computers. Called “TiVo to Go,” it allows subscribers to TiVo’s home media service to move programs to desktop or laptop computers for viewing or burning onto DVDs.

Unlike competitor ReplayTV, which was sued by the entertainment industry for its line of boxes that allowed users to e-mail recordings, TiVo-recorded programs will be viewable on a computer only by users who have a security key, which plugs into a computer’s USB port.

“We’re extremely concerned with content security,” said TiVo CEO Mike Ramsay, alluding to the fears of network and studio execs that digitally recorded content could find its way onto peer-to-peer programs like Kazaa. “For us, flexibility is tied up in how confident we can be that the content is secure.”

HP joins iPod pack

Sony wasn’t the only company to make digital music news, however. Hewlett Packard announced its jump into the increasingly crowded waters via a partnership with Apple. Rather than developing its own products, as had been expected, company is licensing the right to sell iPods with its own brand name on them. It also will pre-install HP-branded iTunes players, which are connected to the iTunes Music store, on all its consumer PCs.

Move is a sign of how dominant Apple’s technology has become in the nascent digital music space and also shows that, rather than just exploiting the brands itself, Apple hopes to extend its market lead by becoming a licensor.

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