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.