By MICHEL MARRIOTT, New York Times
A FEW years ago, when MP3 players were establishing themselves as the hot cool thing, the next question seemed clear: What if you could take along not only music but movies, television programs, home video and still pictures in a high-tech box svelte enough to slip into a briefcase, backpack or purse, or perhaps a pocket?
An answer is beginning to emerge, however tentatively. Microsoft’s response takes the form of a system called the Portable Media Center, being incorporated first by Creative, an early maker of MP3 audio players, into a sort of oversized audio player with a color video screen. Samsung and iRiver will follow with sleeker versions this fall; all three will cost about $500 each and be capable of 80 hours of video play.
The Windows-powered machines enter a nascent marketplace that includes devices by Archos, a French maker, and RCA. Each camp makes the case for its own pioneer status on a new frontier of hand-held devices. And all say the devices will appeal to commuters and travelers, including those looking to occupy small children on long trips. “We saw a great opportunity and we jumped at it,” said Brian King, a Microsoft software engineer and co-developer of the Portable Media Center system.
But some consumer-electronics analysts question whether these early efforts will result in anything more than just another geeky gadget. A chief concern is content. None of the Microsoft-powered portables can directly copy content; they must be plugged into a computer running Windows XP to move copies of a computer’s stored video, music and pictures into the mobile device. No Macs. No Linux.
Ross Rubin, the director of industry analysis at the NPD Group, a provider of marketing information, said that while many people may have video on their computers, those files are probably minuscule in number compared with music files. “Digital music players took advantage of the Napster free-for-all,” he said of the not-so-long-ago era of rampant file-sharing. “Lots of consumers acquired digital music on their PC’s. There’s been nothing like that for video, even though there are video files available on networks like Kazaa.”
The scarcity of video content for devices like the Portable Media Center is magnified by the very way video – constituting much larger files than music – is consumed, Mr. Rubin said. While people are happy to listen to the same songs repeatedly, “video is more disposable,” he said. “In many ways, people have a more voracious appetite for new video than for music.”
Microsoft is taking steps to expand the video offerings for the Portable Media Center, striking agreements with Major League Baseball and CinemaNow, an online film store and rental service. CinemaNow, for example, will offer 200 movies and television programs coded for the Windows devices that must be downloaded into a computer before being transferred to a Portable Media Center. For a typical charge of $3, renters can store the video on their portable devices for 30 days; they will have 48 hours to view the programming once it is started.
In addition, films and TV shows can be bought for $10 to $15. Pricing plans include package deals in which those renting or buying movies for their computers can get a version for their portable devices for an additional 99 cents, said Bruce Eisen, CinemaNowâ€™s executive vice president. “I think in the beginning this is going to be a little niche,” Mr. Eisen said. “I do think that it’s going to eventually take off pretty well. Look and see what happened with the iPod. That is certainly a success.”
Bob Bowman, chief executive of Major League Baseball Advanced Media, which runs the popular site mlb.com, said his company would package condensed baseball games and highlights for Portable Media Center that will range in cost from 99 cents to $3.95. He is bullish on the potential appeal of video playback on a hand-held device. “It was obvious that someone was going to come up with an iPod for video,” Mr. Bowman said. “We are a people who live on the go, and we do a lot of time-shifting. We do it with our TV’s; we do it with our laptops.”
Microsoft suggests, in fact, that the greatest source of content for its devices is television. Computers equipped with television tuner cards can record programs and movies from TV to their PC hard drives, then transfer the content to Portable Media Center’s own 20-gigabyte hard drive. (IRiver will also make a 40-gigabyte model.)
But the process is not as simple as it sounds, said Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director for Jupiter Research. “You have to know ridiculous things like transcoding and codecs and bit rates,” Mr. Gartenberg said of the process of transferring video from television to computer to hand-held device. The process would be far simpler, he said, if a Portable Media Center owner also had a Windows Media Center computer, which functions like TiVo-style digital video recorders. (A similar symbiosis existed between early iPods and Macintosh computers, and still largely exists between iPods and iTunes software.) But most consumers do not have Media Center computers. “For these devices to become mainstream, it has to be made simple to get video onto these devices, and far easier to get content than the products on the market right now,” Mr. Gartenberg said.
Still, executives of Microsoft and of the companies introducing the Windows players are hoping that typical early adopters of electronic devices – often men 25 to 34 – will help establish the category. “It is not sure to us entirely how it is going to evolve,” acknowledged Todd Warren, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Windows Mobile division.
Hand-held devices that offer video playback are not limited to higher-end devices. A slew of portable consoles have been released, with more soon to come, that play video from small optical discs or flash memory. Many of these players, some costing as little as $70 – like the Juice Box by Mattel, scheduled for release in October – are directed at young consumers. Others play video and music, but are primarily portable video game consoles or audio players: the Gmini 400, introduced last week by Archos; the PlayStation Portable, coming soon from Sony; and the Zodiac, due this month from Tapwave.
David Feldman, senior vice president for marketing for Archos in the United States, is quick to point out that Microsoft’s arrival on the scene comes three years after Archos introduced its first mobile media players. “We’re now on our third generation,” Mr. Feldman said, referring to the company’s AV400 series of portable audio-video players, introduced in July. The Archos players can not only transfer video from computers (if converted into MPEG-4 format), but can also record directly from a television and other sources, he said. And some Archos devices come with a much heftier price tag than Windows devices, like the 80-gigabyte AV480 for about $800.
RCA’s Lyra, another mobile media player, went on the market more than a year ago, with capabilities similar to those of many Archos players. But Mr. Warren of Microsoft largely dismisses those players as having less-than-ideal ease of use, and software that is less stringent in protecting content from being improperly used or copied. Portable Media Centers, which will be equipped with the new Microsoft Windows Media Player 10, use more sophisticated digital rights management that work to prevent content copied into the devices from being copied into other computers, he said.
Although the Archos and Lyra devices have had lackluster sales, analysts say some major retailers say they are willing to see if the Microsoft-based players will find a market. “This is a product that is entering the public consciousness right now,” said Steve Mullen, a spokesman for Circuit City. “I think they are where MP3 players were a few years ago. People are just learning about them.”
Mr. King, who said he and a co-worker came up with the Portable Media Center concept two years ago while working on the Windows CE operating system for mobile devices, thinks even those who have resisted buying a music player may be attracted to the new offerings. “I think the cool thing right now is that there are lots and lots of people who don’t have MP3 players,” he said. “If the Portable Media Centers can offer a little bit more at some incremental costs, wow, look at all these other things they can do.”