Archive for the ‘ Thoughts ’ Category

Thoughts from #CES

I’m heading to Las Vegas to attend this year’s Consumer Electronic Show, and as usual, I’ll share the voices in my head by posting my thoughts on Twitter. Eventually, I’ll aggregate all my posts in one place, but in the meantime, you can read them via Twitter Search or subscribe to the feed via RSS. I’ll also post photos on Flickr during the show.

Readying for the Microsoft Tablet, Take 5

CES is just a week away, and the technical press speculates that this will be the year of the tablet. Last year, eBook readers were abundant, but they were largely overshadowed by 3D TV hype at every turn. But this year, Apple really stuck a thorn in the industry’s backside, and now everyone’s trying to catch up.

Microsoft has been trying to tap this market for nearly a decade now, and I’m sure we’ll see them at it again at CES. Before going there, though, let’s review Microsoft’s four previous, largely unsuccessful attempts at getting a foothold in the tablet space:

Microsoft Tablet PC

Take 1 (2002): Tablet PC. Microsoft Introduced the Tablet PC platform on a variant of XP, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. Consumer devices were essentially convertible laptops with a stylus, though some keyboardless slate devices were also produced. These never gained wide adoption in the consumer space, though hardened builds for industrial applications still survive. The touch and writing capabilities required for tablets were absorbed into later versions of Windows, but otherwise this platform is largely dead.

Microsoft Smart Display

Take 2 (2003): Smart Display. Microsoft tried to tap into the casual home use market with the Smart Display, which essentially extended your existing Windows PC to anywhere in the house. This underpowered (Windows CE) keyboard-less touch panel created a remote desktop connection to your PC over your wireless B [only] network. It was hefty, had limited media capabilities, and prevented anyone else from using the PC while the display was in use. It lasted about a year until Microsoft killed it.

Ultra-mobile PC

Take 3 (2006): Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC). Intel and Microsoft teamed up to introduce the Ultra-Mobile PC, or UMPC, as an alternative to a full-fledged laptop for light-duty media, social, and gaming activities. Dubbed “Origami” by Microsoft, the devices ran Windows with an added skin layer optimized for touch on the small screen. Usability issues, poor battery life, and general market confusion prevented these devices from gaining any serious ground.

Ballmer introduces the HP Slate

Take 4 (2010): The Slate. At 2010’s CES keynote, just weeks before Apple was expected to announce their new tablet product, Ballmer tried to beat them to the punch by announcing the HP Slate, running Windows 7. It was clearly a media stunt—the device wasn’t ready for production, and everyone soon forgot about it after the iPad was announced, even though industrial devices finally hit the market by the end of the year. The general consensus from the press and the industry, as proven by Apple, was that retrofitting a full-blown desktop operating system for tablet use just doesn’t work.

So I have to wonder: what’s it going to be this year? The heat is on in the tablet space now that Apple has established the iPad as the de facto device and Android tablets are in nearly every corner store. What’s it going to be this year, Steve?

I’m hoping for a device loosely based on the (poorly named) Windows Phone 7 platform. It’s time to give up on the desktop Windows OS as a mobile platform. It just doesn’t work.

Calling for Work? Just Use the Phone

Talking on the phone has become a big pain in the ass. I don’t mean to suggest that I’m one of those people who can’t be bothered actually talking to someone in realtime because I’m just all too busy. In fact, quite the opposite: I miss the land line. I miss the days when a really long network of copper wire and physical switches connected me to someone else. No 2.4Ghz interference from the microwave or the car alarm, no dead zones, no dropout, and no network latency. Voice communication technology today is fraught with quality and reliability problems. This is progress? This is ridiculous.

The Decay of Voice Communication

I’m a consultant, and I work out of my home. I spend hours a day on the phone, and I use a cordless phone system with a wired headset to interact with customers and colleagues all day. I want to make sure that I can hear them without interruption, delay, or interference. I want to make sure that they can hear me, too. Even with my high quality phone system, I feel a bit guilty using a cordless handset, since I do encounter some occasional audio dropout.

I communicate regularly with people who rely on…well…less reliable communication channels: VoIP, mobile, Bluetooth, wireless. There are now offices with no physical phone line and no actual phones. Some people sit in front of their computer, talking with clients and colleagues over free VoIP services with no headset, with all the noise of the office around them. And we all know someone who insists on using a speakerphone, even though there’s nobody else in the room. But I think my favorite is Skype over a public Wi-Fi network, using a Bluetooth headset. While screen-sharing. And by favorite, I mean, “Goddam, this pisses me off—you sound like crap!” Now throw a combination of these people onto a conference call…it’s distracting, it’s unproductive, and it’s unprofessional.

When did this become acceptable? Has our tolerance of low fidelity music and video crept into our common communication norms, too? I don’t think so. I would assert that it is not acceptable to submit professional colleagues to the piss-poor call quality we’ve all come to take for granted while chatting with friends. Friends and family may put up with dropped calls and echo, but these are the people we do business with—quite likely the people who pay us. We should show them some respect.

I’ve been on numerous calls with customers who complain or make snarky comments about how it all worked just fine when people used a plain old phone. Remember that? There’s a retronym for that now: POTS—plain old telephone service. It just worked. It still does, but nobody seems willing to pay a whole $30 a month to use it anymore. Instead they subject their colleagues to dropped calls, static, interference, audio drops, echos, delayed audio, half-duplex conversations, and noise…so much noise.

There’s a science to listening. When you consider signal-to-noise, distractions, and the human brain’s limited ability to filter out all of the crap and focus, we’re fighting a losing battle. Don’t we want our colleagues to understand our words and ideas? Then why do we make it so hard for them?

Fixing the Problem

I’m not just here to rant—I have some suggested solutions. There are some basic things that everyone can do to minimize the distractions commonly associated with today’s business voice communications:

  • First and foremost, use a POTS line if you have one. Consider getting one if you don’t. Seriously, the monthly cost is about the same as two drinks in Manhattan. Just get a phone line—it’s a tax-deductible business expense.
  • Use a headset, preferably a wired one. Not the dangly thing that came with your mobile phone—a real headset with a mic that sticks out near your mouth.
  • Avoid the temptation of using a hands-free speakerphone. It typically introduces noise, echo, and reverb.
  • Avoid Bluetooth…period.
  • When using a mobile phone, try to isolate yourself to eliminate background noise, and avoid moving around too much to minimize audio drops (“can you hear me now?” isn’t as funny in the boardroom).
  • Avoid taking Skype or other VoIP calls on any wireless network, let alone a shared, public network. Too many factors can negatively impact the call quality.
  • When using VoIP, do not use your computer’s built-in mic and speakers (see Use a headset, above). Again, it’s the noise and echo.
  • And finally, use your mute button! You can eliminate a lot of background noise and distraction by muting when you’re not talking.

When did this all get so complicated? Technology is supposed to make things easier, isn’t it? It seems in this case that it’s added all of these social protocols that we never had to worry about before. Call me old, call me cranky (both are relatively accurate), but however you call me, just use the damned phone, OK?

I Don’t Want Apps on My TV

With Google throwing its unexpectedly pricey hat into the TV set top box business, I grow ever more frustrated by a move that I just don’t understand: Apps on the TV. Apps give content owners and distributors an opportunity to offer branded, custom portals to their content. Yea for them. But that’s not what I want, and I question—despite all of the tech media hype—if it’s what the masses want.

I don’t want to hunt for shows that interest me in a bunch of different applications. Will I find How Your $#*! Got Outsourced in the CBQ app, the Buena Brothers app, or the huFlix app? Why does it have to be in any of them? I just want to watch the damned show. I don’t care who claims the digital streaming rights to it, and I sure as Hell don’t want some heavily-branded experience wrapped around it. I don’t want a different library browsing, selection, and playback experience from show to show or app to app. I just want to watch the damned show. Oh…and I don’t want another accessory on my coffee table: a keyboard. (TiVo: I think you nailed this one).

What we need is an aggregator. I want to see a service and/or device that can pull together all of the digital content available to me and make it navigable and discoverable (and even purchasable) in meaningful ways. Include the stuff I own, the stuff I can buy, the stuff I can or have recorded, and the stuff available to stream freely; but don’t throw up walls between those acquisition models. Let me search and browse across all of that content. Slice it up and group it in different ways, using robust metadata beyond just genre and network. I still want to browse by network, too, because that’s still a logical association, but define network more broadly than just what you find on your cable box, and include YouTube channels and Internet-only content, like CNET and Revision 3.

Boxee tries to do all this, but it’s still too disjointed, and the UI is overly complex. Apple TV—the old Apple TV—did it fairly well, but its appeal is limited to consumers who have bought into the walled iTunes media garden, and the entry price was too high. Hulu and Netflix both get partway there, but their content is limited by distribution rights that are governed by frightened license holders and greedy attorneys. TiVo teased this with Premier but didn’t deliver, and the Roku box is fundamentally designed around the concept of apps.

It’s a tricky issue, because the content rights holders want to paint their colors and logos all over the place, and then get out their rulers. Everyone wants to do their own thing, but ultimately that makes it harder for consumers to find and consume content. Ironically, this thwarts the content owners’ opportunities to distribute and monetize their content.

So the big question is whether Google can pull this off. They have the expertise in content aggregation and discovery, but Google’s user experience record is underwhelming. The solution needs to be simple, powerful, and engaging. And the price point needs to be right. So far, the $300 Logitech set top box and $1300 Sony television with baked-in Google TV have missed that mark. That said, I’ve already pre-ordered the Revue, so I’ll know soon enough.

Your Digital Media May Not be Insured

Over the past few months, I’ve been making a concerted effort to bolster my personal and financial affairs, including my insurance portfolio. Diving into the details of insurance can be intimidating, and insuring a home and its contents can be an eye-opening experience. Did you know that your home may not have adequate (or any) flood insurance if you don’t explicitly request (and pay) for it? The same is true for damage from sewer backups or a myriad of other events. What most surprised me, though, is how poorly covered some home electronics, computers, and media are, by default.

For example, a high-end laptop or computer alone could easily exceed the $2,000 limit some policies impose on computer hardware, software, accessories, and media. With my insurance company, I have an option to increase that limit (at a cost, of course) to $10,000 for all computer-related stuff before I’d have to look into riders for specific, itemized items.

$10K sounds like a big number, right? You should have no problem replacing all of your computer equipment with that. Unless you’re a geek or you have multiple people in your household with computers. Let’s say two adults in your house each have a reasonably-powered desktop computer. And you have a laptop. And your kids have your old computers. That’s maybe five computers right there that could easily cost 5K to replace, including monitors, printers, cables, and other peripherals. Do you any external storage drives? A few of those could easily run another $1,000. How about a home server or network storage device? Add any additional hard drives you’ve added to it. Another $1,000. Now let’s consider software: downloaded and box software can be inexpensive, but you probably have a lot of it. $30 here for each random downloaded app, $99 for many PC programs, $200 or more for each copy of Office…. It adds up quickly.

Now think about your media collection. If you have 200 DVDs at an average $20 replacement cost, replacing your DVD collection could cost you about $4,000. Many insurance companies will allow you to replace all physical media—magazines, books, movies, records, CDs, …all of it—without any limit. That was great in 1998. But now it’s 2010, and it’s likely that you purchase a lot of media now in digital form. And if it’s digital, it may be covered by the limited portion of your policy that includes computer hardware and software. The big question is, after considering all else, how much is left under your policy’s computer equipment ceiling to also account for your digital media?

You might be thinking that if it’s digital, you can just download it again. Can you? Some services will let you do that, while others will not. There are stories of Apple being accommodating for people who have lost their media libraries, but their terms explicitly exempt them replacing anything that you’ve purchased and lost—so you may be out of luck if you’ve invested heavily in iTunes content. Or maybe you purchased digital audio books, but now you’re no longer a customer of that specific service. And if you purchased your music through an online music service that no longer exists, you’re out of luck.

Bottom line: in the event of a catastrophic loss, your digital media may not be adequately covered under your current homeowner’s policy. So what can you do to protect your media purchases?

  • Know your coverages. If you don’t know if—or to what extent—your digital media is protected by your homeowner’s policy, call your agent and ask.
  • Inventory your computer equipment, software, and digital media. The best way to estimate the value of your computer investments is to create a detailed inventory. There are numerous tools that can help you do this, such as Microsoft Access for Windows users, Delicious Library and Bento for Mac users, numerous online services, and pretty much any document or spreadsheet program. Whatever method you use, make sure there’s a copy of your inventory somewhere off site or in the cloud.
  • Consider a rider to cover specific computer equipment. If your general coverage ceiling for all things computer and digital doesn’t leave enough room to also cover your media purchases, consider making some room by adding a policy rider to specifically cover high-ticket items in your computer inventory. You will likely need to itemize the items requiring coverage, providing your insurance company with specific models, specs, and, in some cases, serial numbers. Your insurance company will probably charge an additional premium to cover these items.
  • Back up media to an off-site location. Backing up your media purchases to an external hard drive can protect your purchases from computer failure, but it might not provide adequate protection if you suffer a catastrophic loss of your home or its contents. So store your backup drive elsewhere—at work, in a climate controlled storage unit, at a friend or family member’s home. Or you could consider using one of the many available cloud-based backup services, but the cost for that could be significant since media files are often very large.

Insuring your possessions can be tricky, but living in a digital world adds complications that many consumers and even insurance companies themselves haven’t really thought through. Make sure you know if your digital media is covered by your insurance, and take the appropriate steps to protect it, if necessary.

Crestron’s Analog Sunset Ads Seem Misleading and Deceptive

I recognize that a large segment of high-end customers don’t want to be bothered with the licensing and legislative details of digital content protection on their devices and content, but that’s no reason for Crestron to be spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt by making false claims in ads. Crestron’s latest ads make the following statements:

Analog audio and video is being killed. By the end of the year component outputs will only support standard definition signals, and by 2013 component outputs and analog video will be gone forever.

These statements are false. Are they lies designed to mislead the otherwise ignorant public? The reality–the truth–is that the “analog sunset” to which these ads allude affects only Blu-ray players manufactured and some Blu-ray content distributed after December 2010. The AACS License Agreement that Blu-ray uses stipulates that after 31 December, 2010, manufacturers must stop designing Blu-ray players with analog component HD output capability, and content providers will have the option (but are not required) to disable analog HD output on new Blu-ray discs. Further, Blu-ray players with any analog output capabilities cannot be sold after December 2013. This is a digital rights management restriction imposed only on Blu-ray technology and nothing else. That’s all.

What doesn’t this affect?

  • Consumers’ current Blu-ray discs played on Blu-ray players manufactured by December 2010 (or, more realistically, as late as December 2011, depending on how quickly existing pipelines and stock are depleted)
  • HD and SD content from satellite and cable providers, with the singular possible exception of some new FCC-permitted constraints on first-run content like movies that are still in theaters
  • Content on or recorded to DVRs
  • Standard, progressive, and upscaling DVD players
  • HD and SD output from game consoles
  • Any content from Internet media streaming devices like RoKu, Media Center, Apple TV, and others
  • Existing HD and SD content on installed media distribution systems from Crestron or any of its competitors
  • Consumers’ existing high definition monitors and TVs that have any digital input options
  • Any other pre-existing component device in a consumer’s home

It’s baffling to me that Crestron would resort to such deceptive advertising practices. I understand that times are tough, but is misleading customers really the solution? These ads likely violate the Federal Trade Commission’s truth-in-advertising rules, satisfying key criteria in its policy statement against deceptive advertising. Primarily, consumers’ existing audio/video equipment is not going to suddenly stop working on 1 January, 2011, and the term Blu-ray doesn’t appear anywhere in these ads, even though that’s the only technology potentially affected by these ridiculous, fear-mongering claims.

I can hope that people wise up and see through Crestron’s false statements. But I can also help. I can share this very information with Crestron, on my blog, on Twitter, and with the FTC.

So that’s exactly what I’m doing.

Is Best Buy Run by Idiots?

Last week, a relatively unknown young man posted a clever and amusing animated video to YouTube, poking fun at the sometimes blind following garnered by the iPhone. The video (not safe for work due to language) features two cute, furry animals talking in electronically-generated speech, standing in a nondescript outdoor environment referred to as Phone Mart. The video does not openly disparage either of the products it mentions: the iPhone 4 and the HTC EVO. The video does not in any capacity mention or suggest Best Buy. Neither this video nor the other videos posted by the creator suggest any personal or professional association with Best Buy.

Fast forward a week, and Best Buy has learned that the video’s creator has worked in its mobile sales group for years. Despite the facts that this video has nothing to do with Best Buy, doesn’t suggest Best Buy in any way, doesn’t identify the creator as being associated with Best Buy, and is so clearly satire that it can’t be interpreted as disparaging either mentioned product, Best Buy suspended the employee indefinitely and is purportedly now trying to fire the employee.

Throw in a holiday weekend with lots of tech news and a grand total of over 3 million views on YouTube, and the public is now baffled by Best Buy’s move. As am I. I’m an iPhone owner and an Apple investor. I bought an iPhone 4 on the first day it was available. This video is mocking people like me, and I found the video to be very funny and accurate about iPhone buyers’ brand loyalty. That’s the point. That’s what’s being mocked here—not the products themselves.

Best Buy would have likely never been associated with this video in any way if its management team had respected some boundaries and done nothing. I’m still trying to figure out why they’d even be inclined to investigate if this innocuous video had any Best Buy affiliation.

I can only draw one conclusion: Best Buy is run by idiots. I’ve been a Best Buy stockholder for years, but today I sold my shares at a net loss, because I don’t think it’s good business to invest in a company that’s run by idiots. Then I let Best Buy know that and why I sold my shares today. I’ll also be watching the news to find out where the video’s creator ends up. I’ll buy stock in the company that hires him.

CES 2010 Wrap-up

Companies showed their wares at this year’s CES, and I spent just two days on the show floor, trying to see as much as I could. Disappointingly, I was hard pressed to find DVRs or any tru2way devices, but there were plenty of other media, mobile, and computing devices to ogle. Here are some of my favorite finds.

Western Digital TV Live

Microsoft was showing off the device compatibility and media sharing capabilities of its Windows product line. This may Western Digital box may look like an ordinary external hard drive, but it’s not. The Western Digital TV Live is a networked, DLNA-compliant device that lets your TV stream video content from the Internet or from your own home network—at 1080p. And it works as a Play To destination for media on your Windows 7 PC. Connect it to your TV and audio systems with HDMI and S/PDIF or with analog component video and audio out. You can also piggy-back up to 2 external USB hard drives for local media storage.

LG Networked Storage

On the server side, LG was showing off Windows 7 certified networked storage devices, including a new Super Multi NAS with Blu-ray re-writer drive. This DLNA-compliant, multi-terabyte server can stream media to players throughout your home, and Blu-ray storage gives you true, lifetime backups for removable, offsite archives.

Archos 9

In what clearly came across as a pre-emptive “me too” move, Microsoft showcased tablet devices—most of which don’t exist yet. This rare exception, the Archos 9, does exist. $550 gets you an 8.9″ touchscreen Windows 7 tablet running the Intel ATOM 1.1 GHz processor. It’s a beautiful device, but at 17mm thick, it seems bulkier than it should and evokes memories of Origami. This is, in fact, Microsoft’s fourth attempt at a portable, touchscreen device (following, the Tablet PC, the SmartDisplay, and the UMPC).

Sony's Dash tabletop Internet device

Sony’s new Dash is a tabletop Internet device for the home that looks strikingly similar to one of Sony’s newer digital alarm clocks (snooze button and all). It’s actually a Chumby in a new suit that—perhaps not coincidentally—can double as an alarm clock. It features a clever design and an accelerometer that flips the screen when laid on its back. It will be interesting to see if people are willing to shell out about $200 for tabletop widgets when this thing comes out.

Flipower USB charger

How do you charge your phone or portable device when you already have two things plugged into the only nearby outlet? Powertech proposes a new solution to the problem: piggy-back on something that’s already plugged in. Just slip the flip-out tongue of the Flipower USB charger over the prongs of your lamp, alarm clock, or whatever, and plug it back in. Voila! The charger pulls juice from the prongs plugged into the outlet then swivels for easy access. Innovative, eh? So much so that it was one of the Innovations Honorees at this year’s show. The manufacturer hopes to have these in retail channels by the second half of 2010.

Sony Ericsson Xperia X10

The Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 is a beautiful, thin Android phone with an insane display resolution of 854 x 480. The interface is fluid and responsive, and the device itself fits perfectly in your hand. Communications—calls, messaging, and social media updates—are aggregated in single, scrollable timeline. Its 8.1 megapixel camera includes smile detection, flash, and face recognition software, and the media applications are just gorgeous. It uses removable microSD cards for up to 16GB of storage.

But don’t go stand in line at your local wireless service provider just yet—this baby is only going to be available through Rogers in Canada.

POLLI-Brick structural blocks

MINIWIZ built its booth with POLLI-Brick—a recycled polymer structural block created from old plastic bottles that are reformed into interlocking blocks. These blocks are fitted together and UV coated to provide a translucent, insulated curtain wall. Installed solar LED lighting adds ambient light to the space and a pleasing visual effect.

It’s not just a concept. POLLI-Brick is being used in the construction of a new building for the 2010 Taipei International Flora Exposition.

LG X300

LG’s X300 is a very thin ultra-portable PC with an 11.6″ display, a 2GHz Atom processor, and SSD storage. Built-in 3G, WiFi, and Bluetooth enable online access and synchronization, including specialized software that allows you to sync and reply to text messages from your netbook. When can you expect to find this on shelves? Uh….

LG thin LED TV prototype

Plenty of folks have been showing thin TV prototypes for the past few years at CES. And while last year LG was demonstrating small OLED TVs on flexible substrates, this year it’s about more practically-sized thin LED displays. Their thin LED TV prototype is so thin, you may be wondering where it is in this picture. It’s the vertical black line dead center—too thin for me to focus on it. The image on this 55″ display was bright and vibrant, but most people were mesmerized by the side angle view, as in this photograph.

Pro-Power Kit with Straight Blade Inlet

Don’t have power on the wall where you want to mount your TV? No problem. DATACOMM’s innovative Recessed Pro-Power Kit with Straight Blade Inlet lets you connect power and media cabling to your TV through the wall. At first glance, this looks a little frightening, but that male plug on the lower plate isn’t hot—it’s basically just an in-wall extension cord. The plate with the outlet goes on the wall where you plan to mount your TV. Then install the plate with the male plug near your equipment and plug it in to your surge protector or power conditioner with an ordinary heavy-duty extension cord.

HD HomeRun CableCARD prototype

Of everything at CES this year, my favorite product, by far, is SiliconDust’s breadboard prototype of the HD HomeRun CableCARD TV tuner. These guys already make one of the best home theater devices available—a network-based ATSC and QAM tuner that works on nearly every HTPC platform, including Sage TV on Linux, EyeTV on the Mac, and Media Center on the PC. This new CableCARD product will split a single digital cable input, decode it based on your subscribed services, and distribute the two signals to Windows 7 Media Center PCs in your house over your wired home network. And they expect to have a product on the market by the second half of the year, at a price point under $250. That’s two networked tuners for about the same price as ATI’s single-tuner CableCARD decoder.

My CES 2010 Posts on Twitter

It was a much busier (though smaller) CES this year. There were some notable no-shows on the floor, but overall it seemed like a much better show. Here are some of my thoughts that I posted on Twitter as I experienced the show.

WhatAnnoysMe Dear CEA: Love the free press lunch at #CES, but these cocktail napkins are useless.
WhatIveLearned Sony Ericsson’s new Xperia X10 Android phone will only be available through Rogers…in Canada. #CES #CNETCES
WhatIveLearned Pelican case for the iPhone includes a waterproof headphone jack that supports audio out, but not the mic for the phone. #CES #CNETCES
WhatImpressesMe Watching @BuzzOutLoud live on stage at #CES. #CNETCES
WhatAnnoysMe Marvel has a HUGE booth at #CES. I still have no idea what they do.
WhatAnnoysMe EHX@CES is kind of pathetic. I hope it’s not a sign of what to expect at the March expo in Orlando. #CES
WhatAnnoysMe Not sure which is more obscene: the booth babes at #CES or the attention they drawl.
WhatImpressesMe Control 4 home control has a phenomenal number of partner vendors exhibiting at its booth. #CES #CNETCES
WhatImpressesMe Silicon Dust is showing off a prototype HD HomeRun CableCARD tuner. Network-based, 2 tuners, <$250! #CES #CNETCES
WhatIveLearned Mental note to self: the pre-emptive Aleve, before hitting the show floor, worked. #CES
WhatIveLearned Apple’s Genius playlist feature on the iPhone and iPod Touch is powered by Gracenote. #CES
WhatIveLearned #CES packing tip: Don’t pack more socks than you need. They take up space, and how often do you really change your socks mid-day anyway?
WhatImpressesMe I’m onboard and ready to go. Spoke with @acedtect in the airport, and I got an exit row with lots of legroom. A nice end to a great #CES.

Did DirecTV Just Serve Media Center a Fatal Blow?

Nearly three years ago at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show, Bill Gates unveiled a deal with DirecTV that would open Windows Media Center to a whole new market—satellite customers. Two agonizing years later at CES 2008, DirecTV quietly released news about their two-tuner interface for Media Center. But just days ago, DirecTV announced it is suspending further development of this device, and I have to ponder the impact: Is this the end of the line for Media Center?

Windows Media Center has faced continued challenges from the start. Spawned from Microsoft’s lackluster Ultimate TV, Windows XP Media Center Edition was greeted with mixed reactions. The Windows PC as a DVR. But why would you want a DVR on your desk? Or a PC in your living room?

And so Media Center evolves, eventually finding its way onto devices from the likes of HP, Gateway, and Sony that look more like and fit better with consumers’ home entertainment equipment. CE companies produce Media Center remotes and build extenders that let you use the Media Center from any TV in the home. Except that nobody buys them because the boxes are priced on par with similarly capable computers instead of similarly capable set-top boxes. Why pay $1000 for a PC when you can spend $300 for a TiVo—or just rent a DVR from your cable or satellite service provider?

Meanwhile, HDTV is gaining ground, and while TiVo seems entirely incapable of delivering its long-promised Series 3 HD recorder, consumers start looking toward Microsoft—and Microsoft is starting to look better. With several revs of the platform, suddenly Windows Media Center supports HD! Over the air. Only. But it’s more than TiVo’s offering, save for a select few early-adopting satellite customers. And it’s far better than what most local cable providers can provide at the time.

So Microsoft puts the moves on. Windows Vista overhauls the whole on-screen experience, once again rejuvenating interest in Media Center as a home entertainment platform. Microsoft talks about a future with CableCard support for HD cable tuners, your HD DVD movie collection right on your hard drive, and TVs with Media Center built right in. And then, in early 2006, Gates announces the entry into a largely untapped market with deals to support DirecTV and Sky.

But when Vista comes out, the CableCard support isn’t there, and consumers soon realize that their Media Center PC is using more CPU cycles to protect the interests of the content providers than to provide the engaging access to media that they were sold. Available extenders don’t support HD content yet, Sony introduces and retires a few more overpriced living room devices, HD DVD tanks, and HP scraps all support for Media Center PCs and TVs. Once again, the consumers aren’t buying, and Windows Media Center is not staking its claim to the living room as Microsoft had so hoped.

Imagine the impact that DirecTV’s abandonment of Media Center must mean for Microsoft. CableCard support for Media Center PCs is largely encumbered by licensing, certification, and cost. Analog tuner support offered in earlier Media Center PCs is all but useless come February’s digital transition. Set-top box tethering has never really been a good option—especially without any high definition video connection between devices. And now support for satellite TV on Media Center seems entirely unlikely. That leaves over-the-air HD broadcasts. And that’s it. Now how much would you pay?

Nowadays, it’s a challenge to even find a Media Center PC for the living room. Most of those available today are from specialty PC manufacturers catering to high-end home theater systems. And certified CableCard support adds even more expense for consumers, starting at about $300 per tuner. Somewhat ironically, custom installers often shy away from Media Center home theater solutions. The margins are too low, and the system is so complete out of the box, there’s little opportunity for the kind of consulting revenue that a complex solution like Crestron might yield.

In many ways, Microsoft offers a superior home entertainment platform. It provides multi-tuner recording capabilities from multiple sources with no monthly fees; it delivers a visually engaging and intuitive on-screen experience; it provides seamless access to music, video, and photos on your network; it presents a platform that third-party developers can and do use to expand its capabilities; and it doesn’t spam you with ads at every turn.

Nonetheless, it’s pretty clear that Windows Media Center is flailing. Licensing, pricing, certification, content protection, poor vendor hardware support, and now economic trends have all played a part in Media Center’s failure to attract the audience it deserves. It’s probably fair to assume that a handful of poor business decisions have also contributed to this mess. This week’s announcement from DirecTV has to be the worst possible news at this point.

So is this it for Media Center? Windows 7 promises to enhance the media experience with a refreshed interface and integrated online content. But it may be too late. And if the next wave of Media Center devices remains overpriced and encumbered by corporate jockeying, Windows Media Center could go the way of Web TV, remaining a niche product for a very small market. One thing is certain: I’m not believing anything I see at Microsoft’s Media Center kiosk this January until it’s on my own home theater PC.

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