Dear Microsoft -- What the heck is going on with Media Center?

Sep 29 2008

Chris Lanier recently summed up the poor misguided path of Media Center since becoming a part of Windows Vista:

Media Center’s number one problem has been failing to define itself in the market. Enthusiasts and power users want features not currently provided by Media Center, most of which Microsoft has shown little interest in actually implementing, and they want it at the smallest price possible. The high-end custom install channel wants the same things, but are willing to pay as much as they need to in order to get the features. Then the rest of the world doesn’t know that Media Center exists, and even if they did they want it at a price lower than what enthusiasts and power users are willing to spend.

While custom installers keep busting tuner limits (which makes any kind of tuner limit a big fat joke now), so the number of CableCARD tuners is up to something like 8. This doesn't solve the looming issue of SDV. Why aren't the custom installers pushing the industry, namely Microsoft and ATI (providers of the OCUR hardware), to get the bi-directional CableCARD specification into real shipping PC hardware?  Media Center will never be viable without the ability to properly support the digital cable TV infrastructure.

Likewise, where's the DirecTV tuner? And why isn't Dish Network being courted too?

All of this lack of focus and total deflation of the push for Media Center as a premiere digital media platform has left me a bit cynical and close to trading in my Media Center PC for a stand alone DVR and a PlayStation 3 for its Blu-ray playing & media streaming abilties and calling it quits with Media Center.

The strength in PC solutions lies in the inherent flexibility. The PC is a jack of all trades, which is why Media Center was such an ambitious concept... circa 2005. Microsoft's clout in the PC industry and reputation in the business world should have been a fairly easy sell for these service providers. Vista's new protected paths and DRM foundations should have made for a no brainer. Yes we hate DRM, but let's face it premium content isn't getting to the PC without it.

Vista Media Center had (realistically Windows 7 is where all the resources are currently in Microsoft) the potential to allow a world where in theory a DirecTV, a Dish Network, and a CableCARD tuner could all be used at once in one device. Heterogeneous support (something other PC DVR software vendors have had forever) is only available to OEMs with the elusive and feature underwhelming "TV Pack" update.

So let's talk about where Microsoft really could, and should, work on Media Center. Some of these are directly in their control (MS owns the IP elsewhere in the company), some are a good opportunity to work with the 3rd party vendors they love so dearly to provide their system vendors with product differentiation, and some admittedly are harder to implement, either due to industry politics or some other factor.

1. Take DVD network serving seriously. This is two fold:

A. Guess what... DVD backups are here to stay and there are legitimate ways to do it. Kaleidescape does it and Real Networks just launched a way to do it on the PC. If WMDRM v10 is on the approved list for AACS, the next generation copy protection on Blu-ray discs, why the heck isn't it acceptable for good ol' DVDs? Go get the approval from the DVD CCA!

B. As a natural extension of this, for gosh sake let Extenders stream these legitimately backed up DVDs. This is basically no different then the streaming of protected CableCARD content.

2. Integrate Blu-ray support into Media Center. Yep HD DVD had a lot of promise, yep it used MS foundations, yep it could have been the next generation platform, but it isn't. So deal.

Time to get off the MS high horse and just integrate a proper player engine for Blu-ray. Heck, throw in HD DVD support from all the extra HD DVD development code samples you have around while you're at it!

Or

Less ideal, however possibly just as satisfactory, is to provide a basic framework for Blu-ray playback support inside Media Center and leave the backend details to the 3rd party vendor of the consumer's choice  (i.e. Cyberlink, Corel/InterVideo, or ArcSoft). Then MS doesn't touch Java, etc. and doesn't cut out their 3rd party vendors. Microsoft just provides the protected path enabled front-end for playback inside the Media Center UI. No hacks, and no launchers that give a separate application a pseudo-media center look to trick things in to appearing integrated.

3. Focus on and work with industry partners to get proper bi-directional and M-Card capable CableCARD tuners. Surely ATI cannot be the only vendor available. Competition is good for this sort of thing. We know that at least the custom installers would be chomping at the bit for these new tuners, if not the general Media Center demographic.

4. Pursue proper relationships with DirecTV and Dish Network. We know it's coming, just get on it.

5. Get proper MediaRoom IPTV integration. Really now, what the heck is wrong with you? You provide the foundation for IPTV services that AT&T's U-verse service uses. The Xbox 360 and Media Center PCs would seen to be natural choices for digital TV receivers for this kind of service. We've seen Xbox 360 demos doing it! This of course also applies to all your customers in other regions like Europe.

6. Remember that whole Online Media Services thing? What happened to all the partners with fun and interesting online content that could be streamed? Currently they're pretty much extinct. It's time to start talking to Hulu, CBS, Fox, Universal, and the others who have their back catalogues of TV shows online for streaming and develop proper Media Center portals for these applications.

7. So again, let's reiterate... a PC is a highly versatile platform, Microsoft provides the operating systems for the vast majority of PCs and servers in the market today. Microsoft already saw fit to leverage their Windows Server experience in the form of a home server environment called Windows Home Server. Why proper Media Center backup, remote scheduling, plus real-time storage to and from a WHS box from a Media Center PC was not included is unfathomable. Version 2.0 of WHS needs to fix this, very badly.

8. Once the Media Center world looks more coherent and hopefully a bit more rosy, start evangelizing the platform again. See #9 for why Media Center needs specific PR work.

9. Media Center has become another random feature in the check list on the box of certain Windows Vista versions, lost in the confusion over the myriad of editions that Windows Vista offers. It has become a feature mentioned randomly with everything from ultra light laptops to beefy gaming PCs, none of which have tuners, remotes, or really the target end-user demographic for such a thing.


Perhaps a lot of this mess stems from Microsoft putting their fingers into too many pies? Think of all the areas Microsoft has branched out to. These all form separate divisions, many of which are very nearly separate companies, the divisions quite often have very different corporate cultures. This seems to be case with the early days of DirectX, according to people like Alex St. John, and this seems to be what happened to the eHome team.

In theory Microsoft recognized this fragmentation and lack of proper communication, not entirely sure what to do about this, it seems the powers-that-be decided to fold the Media Center (eHome) team into the main OS team for Vista. This move from a bureaucratic perspective seemed to make sense. However, what this has done is to lock the eHome team into the main operating system service releases time frame and also means a clash of cultures. Possible evidence of this clash can be seen by the multiple incidences of long time eHome team folks calling it quits over the last couple of years. Notice that now the DirecTV features won't be coming until Windows 7... following along the OS time frames? How many releases of Media Center were issued with Windows XP as it's base? Answer: All of them prior to Vista Media Center, that's 3 versions on one base OS, by the 3rd release (MCE 2005) things were quite mature and it seemed like the eHome team had learned quite a lot. Then the reorganization happened...

So please Microsoft, go back to the drawing board and re-think the Media Center product: its future as a product, the viability of the strategy of having it tossed into random Windows versions, and goals for the technologies that make up Windows Media Center.

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