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Ulanoff: Xbox 360 Revives the Media Extender

The Microsoft Xbox 360 will double as a Media Center Extender. What's so interesting about this?

Well, one may recall that Microsoft's first foray into extending the media you collect on your Media Center PC to output to devices around the home — like TVs and stereos — was an abysmal failure.

There are, I believe, precisely two manufacturers making Media Center Extenders right now: Linksys and HP.

I'd reckon a guess that these companies have sold very, very few of them; one research marketing firm told me the market is so small that they do not bother tracking it.

This is not all Microsoft's fault. Consumers never really understood what they were supposed to do with these Extenders (not a very sexy name for a consumer electronics device). Of course, it didn't help that when Media Center PCs were first introduced last year, they weren't exactly flying off the shelves.

That has changed in 2005, and now virtually every new PC is media-ready, if not a full-blown Media Center. (Not all ship with TV tuners, so I'm not sure what really makes them "media-ready.")

The phenomenon of porting media from room to room and even on the road only started to take root in the latter half of this year. I credit Slingbox and Orb for helping to jump-start the media-anywhere idea.

Still, consumers are not quite ready for media everywhere in the home. Many are buying DVRs, but they still use them primarily as souped-up VCRs and are only slowly discovering all the other things they can do with them.

TiVo Series 2, for example, if you install TiVo 2 Go on your desktop systems, lets you, view photos and listen to music stored on your other systems via the TiVo device and even watch videos stored on another TiVo in your home.

All of this requires a wired or wireless home network. Among those who own TiVos, a smaller group has networked their homes. For those that do have a network in place, it's more than likely that it's 802.11b wireless — not the best pipeline for porting media content from room to room.

Microsoft and other companies looking to sell Extender devices should not despair.

In the early 1980s, my family, like most American families, owned a VCR. I think we paid around $900 for it in 1979.

We recorded TV shows and rented movies. Sometimes my parents wanted to watch a movie in their bedroom and leave us kids to watch a cartoon in the living room.

The VCR was way too big to carry from room to room (most were the size of small suitcases). But my parents found a product called the Rabbit. This was essentially a two-piece television-signal transmitter that you hooked up to your VCR on one end and the receiver TV on the other.

When both were switched on, you could watch whatever was playing on the VCR in whichever room had a Rabbit receiver. My parents eventually had a few of these small set-top box receivers connected to our various TV sets.

In time, VCR sizes shrank (so you could move them from room to room) and prices fell so that it was no longer a financial burden to own two or more players. Eventually, Rabbits disappeared and people forgot about them.

When Microsoft introduced the idea of the Extender, no one knew what it meant. I think Microsoft would have had more luck calling it the Rabbit II. The company has decided, smartly, not to try to sell the Extender as a standalone device. Instead, it's crammed it into one of the company's most popular and eagerly awaited brands, the Xbox 360 gaming console.

Now, Extenders no longer have to succeed as a standalone product. They simply have to be discovered by consumers and then propagate — like rabbits.

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Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.