2001: The Year of Digital Convergence?

Digital media isn't just for home users

In the 1950s, imagining a future controlled by computers that could perform Jetsons-like feats of near magic was easy. But the reality of computing has been far less dramatic. The presence of digital media in our daily lives has been less than exciting for those of us who have watched computers fail to achieve their promise, especially in the enterprise. But don't give up hope yet—things are starting to get interesting.

Microsoft's Strategy
That Microsoft is at the center of the digital media revolution isn't surprising. Since the development of Windows 3.1, the company has been innovating with various multimedia initiatives. Microsoft has always understood that the key to software acceptance is widespread availability, and subsequent versions of Windows have worked efficiently with new types of hardware, as well as with ever more powerful audio and video formats. Home users have responded to these capabilities in Windows, for example, by scanning existing photographs and investing in digital cameras.

This enthusiastic acceptance hasn't been noticeable in the workplace. One reason behind the difference between home and business use is obvious: Most corporate PCs are stripped-down models that tend to be in service for longer periods of time than home PCs, which in general, see more frequent upgrades. Another reason is that Microsoft targets the home market first with new technology. For example, the company's first compelling media player, Windows Media Player 7, is largely spurned by corporations today because of its garish interface and splashy visualizations, which were created to appeal to home users. Microsoft is working on a new version of the software that will be more acceptable to the workplace.

Multimedia at Work
You might ask why any corporation would need a product such as Windows Media Player, but Microsoft has an interesting answer. This winter, Microsoft demonstrated the upcoming Windows Media 8 video and audio formats. The demo included prototypical training applications built on Windows Media that businesses can stream through- out their enterprise. Such integrated media applications can lower costs while satisfying a business need, and they're easily archived on CD-ROM for use on the road. Not surprisingly, Windows XP (formerly code-named Whistler), the next version of Windows 2000, even offers the ability to write to CD-Recordable/CD-Rewritable (CD-RCD/CD-RW) disks without third-party software.

When Active Desktop debuted in Internet Explorer (IE) 4.0, corporations derided the feature. But with new versions of Windows Media, companies will be able to stream near-DVD-quality video presentations to employees' desktops or to internal Web sites over the network, eliminating the need for expensive and time-consuming offsite meetings. This type of solution isn't always applicable, but it's available free of charge to anyone with a Windows-based network.

The Future of Computing Is Convergence
The best technology works seamlessly and efficiently, but it should also save businesses money and provide elegant new solutions to existing problems. The convergence of digital media with Windows-based PCs provides many such solutions, and these solutions won't cost most companies much beyond the usual costs of upgrading. Products such as Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me) and Windows XP Home Edition are bringing these technologies to home users, but Win2K Server and Windows Server (formerly code-named Whistler), both of which feature integrated Windows Media Services, can make digital media a valuable addition to the enterprise. We might be a few years away from digital food generation and teleportation devices, but we're now able to work with digital media technologies that surpass what was available just a few short years ago. Let's make the most of it.

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