Microsoft partners were a quiet lot through most of the second day of speeches at this week’s worldwide conference in Toronto.

However, there was enthusiastic applause at the announcement that they’ll soon be able to enter

forbidden territory: Build PCs around Windows XP Media Centre Edition.

“”System builders are a great group of people who can bring creativity and new form factors to that product,”” Neil Charney, director of Windows client product management, said in an interview explaining the Media Centre move.

“”Media Centre Edition is something we’ve seen significant interest in the consumer space and something we’re certainly going to be investing in moving forward.””

The news was welcomed by Dragoslav Minic of MDG Computers. Media Centre “”is something quite exciting for the industry,”” he said. “”It will be even a stronger boost to all of us than the arrival of Windows XP.””

As part of the plan ATI Technologies and nVidia Corp. are creating hardware bundles for builders can assemble MCE computers with the right video cards, tuners and remote controls.

Media Centre is a version of the operating system that Microsoft hopes will make the PC the centre of a home entertainment system. Because MCE computers need (and buyers often demand) high-power components, they sell at higher prices than standard PCs and pull in higher margins.

Until now only a few private OEMs have been allowed to build Media Centre Edition PCs and brand them with the Designed for Windows logo. Among them is Winnipeg’s Mind Computer Products. Another is Seanix Technology of Richmond, B.C., which has been building MCE PC’s for two years.

“”There’s not that much demand for them right now,”” said company president Paul Girard,”” but it’s probably going to pick up because Microsoft has improved it a lot.””

Still, he praised Microsoft’s decision.

“”It’s a good opportunity for the channel because it takes salesmanship and product knowledge to explain to the customer that you can record video on your PC.

“”If I was a system builder selling a home PC I’d bundle that operating system instead of XP Home, and then they’ve got a differentiator.””

Perhaps significantly, the new initiative hopes to see system builders have product ready to ship in September and in the hands of consumers in October, just in time for the holiday season.

“”It broadens our reach and the types of machines our customers can get,”” Charney said of the decision.

ATI Channel Partner Program members will be able to get an evaluation kit for MCE-designed systems. The AGP solution will include Radeon 9250 chipset, eHome Wonder card, Media Center remote control and supported software, while the PCI-Express solution will feature Radeon X600 series chips, eHome Wonder, Media Center remote control and supported software.

It isn’t clear, however, if resellers will be overjoyed that at news that Microsoft is encouraging yet another Web site for selling Windows applications from ISVs online.

In an effort to help show software vendors Microsoft is backing their efforts the company previewed Windows Marketplace, a one-stop shopping Web site where buyers can find over 100,000 products that work with the operating system.

Scheduled to open in the fall, it will be more than a catalogue: Users will be able to rate products as well as buy and download full and test versions of software. CNET will be the content aggregator.

At first, however, it will be aimed at U.S. customers. “”Ultimately we will have a Canadian site,”” promised DeeDee Walsh, director of community and partners for Windows client. Some Canadian online sellers may already be registered with CNET, she said.

“”The idea is we send folks more business,”” she said. “”The goal is to grow the entire (Windows) ecosystem.””

Asked why ISVs who don’t sell online should applaud Microsoft getting into Web sales cheerleading, she said, “”over the long term it will benefit them.”” A future version will let VARs list services, which will benefit smaller partners.

Later this year will also see the addition within the partner competency program of new desktop installation specialties that VAR staff can be certified in.

“”Rolling out Windows or Office is something emphasized by our partners,”” explained Richard Flynn, worldwide director of Microsoft’s partner program. “”If a customer is looking for somebody who can migrate their company to the latest version of our desktop software they know this is the type of partner who specializes in that service.””

The Desktop Deployment Solution is part of the Networking Infrastructure Solutions competency, and is aimed at midmarket partners with mid-sized customers. Desktop Lifecycle Management is part of the Advanced Infrastructure competency and is tailored for partners with larger clients.

They will be able to use the new Enterprise Edition deployment solution, which will include the “”zero-touch”” deployment accelerator. In a demo at the conference a laptop was loaded hands-free with a copy of Windows XP in six minutes using this accelerator.


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