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I am a PC?

Some of the excitement preceding my first visit to the Microsoft campus, last month, was muted a bit by my realization that “Bill G.” and I were highly unlikely to cross paths in the hallway of

Building 50 in Redmond, Washington. Bill Gates, as most people know, “retired” from Microsoft in June, handing off day-to-day authority of the software giant to Steve Ballmer. I probably wouldn’t know Ballmer if I sat next to him on a plane, so the chance of meeting him, while just as unlikely, didn’t do much for me.

Nonetheless, upon my arrival I was excited to learn that a handful of press and I had been granted first-time access to several members of the Media Center team, even gaining a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse at three testing labs.

Microsoft has come a long way in the integrated home space, especially when it comes to its Media Center platform. I remember back in the late 1990s, when Microsoft’s view of the connected home was a bit comical. Specifically, I attended a press event in a New York City loft where actors played the parts of family members. “Grandma” touted the novelty of using the “World Web” to e-mail her grandkids in New York “all the way from New Jersey” and Mom marveled at her ability to read recipes “from the computer” right there in the kitchen.

Indeed, the CI channel continues to play a pivotal role in the evolution of more sophisticated offerings from this product line. Microsoft MC “Racing Team” is so entrenched in the installation market that it has hired several former CI guys to drive marketing and product development. That team’s “Racing Room” is a fully automated room in Building 50, replete with a Crestron system for controlling all of the room’s sources and displays.

The gear is switched through a Gefen HDMI 4×4 matrix switch, which effectively allows the team to take any source and put it on any display.

The Racing Room also contains two Media Center PCs as well as a Windows Home Server. One Media Center was running the much-maligned Windows Vista operating system, while the other was running its highly touted replacement-to-be: Windows 7. The Racing Team simulates scenarios that custom installers might encounter within an integrated home, debugging flow-control problems and other snags related to consumer-grade products. In the back of the room is an HP Touchsmart PC that’s also running Windows 7. The goal there is to improve the touchscreen experience of edia Center. The touchscreen capability of Windows 7’s Media Center is another example of how Microsoft is driving to the masses what began in the custom install channel.

I could tell you about the products I saw in the three test labs I toured, but then I’d have to kill you… well not me, but Microsoft “has people.” I can tell you that Microsoft’s Media Center test labs contain 256 machines that are used to evaluate data and build quality across a variety of devices and brands. Another team is primarily responsible for looking at automation (like auto installs of software and virus updates) that runs overnight, looking to see what failed and then farming those bugs out to developers to be fixed. Another lab is much more TV focused, where various tuners are tested for compatibility with the MS platforms.

It was refreshing to see a huge U.S. company chugging right along, even as TVs and newspapers are filled with daily doom and gloom about our failing economy. Microsoft is well aware of what’s going on outside the sprawling perimeter of its headquarters, but it doesn’t seem to be letting that get in the way of progress.