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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 March, 2004, 09:04 GMT
Microsoft eyes video in the hand
By Alfred Hermida
BBC News Online technology editor

Creative Zen Portable Media Center prototype
The Creative Zen video player is expected to cost around 400
Microsoft is throwing its considerable weight behind devices to let you watch video and listen to music on the go.

It is working with leading gadget makers to develop digital players based on Windows software.

The first Portable Media Centers are due to go on sale in Europe by year end, Microsoft said at the Cebit computer show in Hanover, Germany.

The devices are similar to other handheld players already available from European firms Archos and Thomson.

Windows to go

In many ways, the idea of a sort of "video iPod" is a natural progression from the MP3 music player.

James Bernard of Microsoft
We think this as the next evolution in mobile entertainment
James Bernard, Microsoft
This new generation of pocket-sized handhelds come with a colour screen capable of playing films.

The Portable Media Center has an operating system which is similar to Microsoft desktop Media Center software and uses Windows media. It will also play MP3 files.

It will synchronise with a Windows XP computer to transfer video, music or photos.

A device with a 40 gigabyte hard drive would be able to hold 175 hours of video, 10,000 songs or 100,000 pictures.

The battery would last long enough to let you watch one of the three-hour instalments of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy or listen to 12 hours of music.

"We think this as the next evolution in mobile entertainment," said James Bernard, Portable Media Center product manager Microsoft.

"For the same money as an audio-only player, you will be getting video as well," he told BBC News Online.

MTV generation

The first players are due to be released in Europe by Creative and iRiver in time for Christmas, selling for around 400.

Archos AV320 Video Recorder
The Archos device has been on the market since last year
Other leading electronics manufacturers such as Samsung, Sanyo and ViewSonic are also working on their own version of the media player.

"Following the phenomenal success of digital music players, adding video and photo viewing capabilities is the natural next step in personal entertainment," said Gartner analyst Paul O'Donovan.

"Music videos are one example where video capabilities will be compelling, especially to a whole generation of European consumers that watch music TV.

"If the price is realistic and the right video content is available, shipments of this type of device could rival music-only players by the end of 2007," he said.

Growing awareness

Microsoft is coming to the portable video arena late. Thomson's US arm, RCA, released the Lyra RD2780 music and video player late last year.

Samsung Portable Media Center
Samsung is working on its own Portable Media Center
And French firm Archos have been selling handheld video players since July 2002. The latest model, the AV320 jukebox, was launched in mid-2003.

The company said it sold between 50,000-100,000 units in the first six months.

"Microsoft want to get their Windows Media Center software everywhere," said Jean-Pierre Le Rudulier, Archos director of sales.

"It is the Microsoft approach of getting some kind of monopoly."

He sees the software giant as a strong competitor, but said that its entry into the portable video market could end up helping Archos.

"It is good for them and good for us as with their marketing money, they will create awareness of these products," said Mr Le Rudulier.

"So far retailers have been reluctant to open up shelf space to portable video and many people don't even know these devices exist."

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