Microsoft is already putting the finishing touches to its next home entertainment product: a more multimedia, less games-oriented alternative to Xbox, codenamed HomeStation.
So, at least, claim unnamed sources cited by PC Format magazine in the UK, and apparently confirmed by other deep throats "close to Redmond".
The plan runs something like this: HomeStation will act as a digital home entertainment hub, pulling down online audio and video content through a broadband pipe and relaying it throughout the home to various playback devices.
Long-time watchers of the console market will, of course, recognise this scenario. It's identical to a scheme Sony has been hinting at for ages, initially through the PlayStation 2, but more recently in the context of the games console's successor.
Frustrating Sony's plans has been the slower-than-predicted roll-out of broadband networks to the home. By the time they are enough of them out there, Sony will be onto its third generation of PlayStation anyway, so it makes more sense to focus its digital convergence plans on the future box than the current one.
Exactly the same circumstances seem to be forcing exactly the same solution on Microsoft, if PC Format's sources are to be believed. Even the name, if accurate, is a clear dig at Sony.
They claim HomeStation will PC-Xbox hybrid running a version of Windows, but since Xbox is already a modified PC running a version of Windows, that's hardly a risky prediction. Nor is the claim that HomeStation will be based on Nvidia's nForce chipset, since that product is itself based on the ancillary chips used in Xbox.
HomeStation will also contain a hard drive to host the OS, act as local media storage and to operate as a digital VCR. The latter, you'll recall, was an early-rumoured feature of Xbox. The magazine has a cute mock-up of how it'll look, albeit without the expected Xbox branding.
The sources also suggest Microsoft will build vast .NET servers to supply HomeStations with content. The box itself will use Bluetooth and/or HomeRF to pump movies and audio to remote playback devices. Given Bluetooth's limited bandwidth, we'd suggest that an 802.11 link is a more likely option.
So is it happening? Well, for all PC Format's attempt to persuade readers that it's all a sinister secret - itself a spin to flog copies of its next issue - it doesn't exactly require a genius to figure that Microsoft would be working on a HomeStation-style device. Microsoft has designs on the home market, particularly those homes that have failed to succumb to the home PC fad. Hence the Xbox toe-in-the-water.
The HomeStation concept ties in nicely with Microsoft's .NET plans and its moves to buy into cable companies around the world - the very operations who will be providing broadband into the home. That's why Microsoft bought into WebTV, though that system was too early - the bandwidth and content weren't there to make a compelling consumer electronics purchase.
It's all part of Microsoft's vision of a networked world - business and pleasure - which is pretty much the same as Sony's (which is why, last year, it gathered its Music, Pictures and Computer divisions under a new Sony Broadband Entertainment umbrella) or Sun's, for that matter. Heck, it's even Amiga's ressurection gameplan. Microsoft is different only in wanting everything for itself. ®
PC Format: Secret son of Xbox