PC's Role is Questioned at Debate

SAN MATEO (05/01/2000) - When Microsoft Corp. last week demonstrated its Universal Plug and Play (UP&P) concept with a prototype Internet audio/visual set-top box built by Dallas-based Panja, Greg Sullivan, a product manager for Microsoft's Platform Group, called the PC-less demo proof that UP&P has successfully migrated from "slideware to hardware."

However, as the first physical UP&P device, the Panja system was not loaded with Microsoft's Windows Millennium (WinME) operating system, which will ship later this year as the primary vehicle for delivering installed UP&P software to consumers, Sullivan said.

Instead, Panja utilized a proprietary operating system designed specifically for the purpose of the demo, which limited the user from accessing audio/visual content outside the library of information provided by demo partner Streamsearch.com.

When WinME finally ships with UP&P, allowing browser-like access to multiple Web sites, Sullivan said that the end-user would still not need to have a PC to utilize UP&P via set-top box-style systems that run the operating system, such as the Panja.

"The architecture doesn't require [the use of a PC] but we'd recommend using one," Sullivan said, adding that the use of a PC in line with a home UP&P network would improve both speed of operation and overall manageability.

Several device manufacturers attending last week's WinHEC in New Orleans had both prototypes and working set-top box systems on display; similar to Panja and just as ready to support WinME when it arrives.

One of those companies, BroadbandMagic.com, based in League City, Texas, is already shipping its Computer Plus WebFlyer, which allows customers to combine their home entertainment center and their home PC; connect to the ISP of their choice and Web surf; send e-mail; or download content.

A keynote speaker at WinHEC, Patrick Gelsinger, vice president and CTO of Intel's Architecture Group, fended off suggestions that the proliferation of PC-like set-top boxes endangers the future of the PC at the consumer level.

"Telewebbing is starting to explode," Gelsinger said. "Over 30 percent of the 56 percent of all [domestic] homes with PCs are engaged in telewebbing. There's a resurgence of all forms of entertainment PCs."

But Gelsinger views the set-top box devices as training wheels for future PC users. And during his keynote address, Gelsinger emphasized that improvements in the style and appearance of future chassis will help maintain the popularity of PCs among consumers.

"Nothing replaces the PC as the primary Web experience," he said.

Robert Manley, director of multimedia development at the Richardson, Texas-based device-driver company Intelligraphics, who attended WinHEC, is skeptical.

"The set-top boxes and the dedicated game systems pose the real threat to the PC," Manley said.

"I don't believe the PC will ever make it into the living room. The office PC will exist, and everyone will still have a PC of some sort for word processing, but definitely not in the living room. And as for the thin client, I don't think it will have any life at all in the home," Manley said.

But Dean McCarron, an analyst at Mercury Research, in Scottsdale, Arizona, said the PC-less WinME is business as usual for the company that once promised a PC in every home.

"Well, that's what CE was all about: getting an OS that didn't run on the PC.

And Microsoft needs OSes that will go places that the PC doesn't," McCarron said.

Microsoft Corp., in Redmond, Washington, is at www.microsoft.com. Intel Corp., in Santa Clara, California, is at www.intel.com.

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