Category Archives: 3345

Going Beyond The Enthusiast Market

Charlie Owen, a former Media Center team member wrote a post this
week about Media Center expanding its marketplace, specifically
going from
the current enthusiast market to a more mainstream market
.  Charlie analysis comes to the pretty simple
answer of It’s
possible, but highly unlikely at this point.”

I had previously come to this conclusion, but to me
the real question is “
will Microsoft attempt to develop for the
enthusiast market?”  Lucky for me,
Charlie replied to my comment with exactly what I was expecting

Charlie: “No. That’s because they have never done so. The enthusiast market is
always a subset of the overall market any product targets. Put another way:
Where the goal is making a profit you wouldn’t sacrifice a broad market
opportunity of 100 for the narrow enthusiast market of 10. Making a
Microsoft-sized profit is different than making a profit if you were a much
smaller company.”

In other words the future for Media Center is one or two
options.  Option 1: Microsoft stops
development of Media Center (very unlikely).  Option 2:
Microsoft transitions Media Center to a market which has the possibility to
create a “Microsoft-sized profit.” (Hint: TV on your PC)  Re-quoting
myself
from early this year, the days of Media Center being billed as the
do-it-all center of your home are over.

My opinion continues to be that Microsoft will focus more
and more on the Xbox
360 as the center of the home
.  The
benefits of the Xbox 360 over Media Center are almost endless from a business
perspective.  The massive amount of end
users (an unquestionable 30 million, with 20 million of them being Xbox Live
subscribers) means content providers are going to flock to the platform.  Microsoft can sit back and rake in yearly
recurring revenue from these 20 million Xbox Live subscribers along with the
massive amounts of licensing accessories and the Xbox 360 brand.  Media Center on the other hard makes
Microsoft absolutely no money as it is a part of the standard Windows SKU (eg.
No one except members of The Green Button ever purchased a Windows license just
to get Media Center).

There are still people holding out hope for Media Center to
become a platform for the home.  The
recent announcement that Dish
Network will not be shipping
their tuner anytime soon didn’t
surprise me one bit
.  Why would Dish
bother to continue with Media Center when it is pretty clear Microsoft is
moving away from the consumer they thought they were buying into?  This same concept is at play with Media
Center Extender’s.  There is still some
hope that Toshiba
will be releasing an Extender, but I think the concept
that most people miss is that whether it gets released or not means little in
the grand scheme of things.  If
Microsoft’s heart is not in providing a platform for the home, you can really
know going into your purchase that you’re going to end up disappointed at some
point.

The biggest question mark might be Windows Home Server.  For years I have said the concept of
including Media Center in Windows Home Server is pointless
and does nothing to expand the current market
.  If HP ditched Extender’s and CableCARD due to
poor sales, why exactly would they have the least bit of interest in shipping a
Media Center+Home Server box?  If OEMs
are not interested, why is Microsoft going to develop it?

Most people underestimate the OEMs when talking about Media
Center.  OEMs are really responsible for
Media Center from start to finish from a customer’s perspective.  HP and Dell have shown they have little
interest in Media Center by either discounting CableCARD PCs, killing off
Extender’s, and even in HPs case killing off their HT-styled z-series Media
Centers.  Dish
Network
and DIRECTV
are just as important and have shown that they are increasing less interested.

Microsoft’s latest attempt to make a market for Media Center
has been the custom integrator channel, and some have big
expectations
for what Microsoft might have in store.  Sadly most of the possibilities have already
been proven false, and based on what I’ve been told from those in the industry
interest in Media Center in the custom channel is dropping fast.  I’m interest to see how much longer Microsoft
attempts to push into the market.  With
their partner OEMs such as HP, Linksys, Dish Network pulling out these leaves
the custom OEMs like Niveus Media and Life|ware to pick up the slack.  Unfortunately there is only such much they
can do.  If Microsoft’s commitment in the
channel falls it might be the end of the custom market experiment.

So once again the question is what’s next.  Recently there have been some great new
bloggers
show up in the Media Center community with some great
suggestions.  I’m done with
suggestions.  Microsoft knows exactly
what we want, let’s not pretend they don’t. 
The issue is it is no longer in their best interest to pursue most of
it.  What’s next?  Who knows. 
All I want at this point is for Microsoft to publicly provide a roadmap
for what Media Center is to become.

Can DISH Network One-Up DIRECTV?

Now that we are fairly certain that DIRECTV
will not ship with Windows 7
, the big question remains to be will DISH
Network?  Around the time the TV Pack
started beta testing, I did
hear that some testers had been contacted about testing DISH Network Tuners
,
and that talk has popped back up in the past few weeks.

Going under my theory that Microsoft has all the plumbing
in-place for DIRECTV support, there is no reason that same framework can’t work
for DISH Network.  If DISH Network wants
to make a Media Center tuner, they can using this framework, and they might have already.

Looking around, their are some other hints about the possible DISH Network Tuner.  Ben’s photos of the eHome Lab show Windows 7
running with a branded Start Menu saying “TV with DISH Network.”  In addition to that, several people, including
Dave Zatz
have brought up the possibility that the unmarked white box in the photo below is a DISH Network tuner. 
Of course, the tuner being in Microsoft’s Lab means nothing as Microsoft as
evidenced by the suspended DIRECTV HDPC-20 tuners also present.

image
(Photos via Engadget
HD
)

Back to the framework which I believe is complete to ship
with Windows 7, here is something Microsoft showed at WinHEC.  That is premium Pay-Per-View TV being ordered via Media
Center.  We know that’s not from
a CableCARD as tru2way tuners don’t have any specs from CableLabs yet.  It chould be DIRECTV, but considering that Channel
510 happens to fall in the range of DISH Networks PPV
and most PPV content
on DISH Network happens to be $4.99, there is a good possibility you are looking
at working PPV via a native DISH Network Tuner.

image

So, should you jump and switch to DISH Network because of
this?  I wouldn’t suggest it.  Should you keep checking back to see when we
get more details?  I’d suggest it.  I’m a DIRECTV customer, so even if this DISH
Network tuner is real I likely wouldn’t be testing it.  That said, I’m looking forward to see what
happen with this.  Given DISH Networks TurboHD package for
$24.99
has every channel I’d ever watch, and the fact I can get ATSC HD
using an antenna in Media Center saving me from having to add HD Locals to the
package, DISH Network does look like a good deal if I could get a native Media
Center tuner.

DIRECTV and Microsoft: What Went Wrong

Now that DIRECTV has suspended development on their HDPC-20
Tuner where does that leave us?  There
are a lot of differing opinions going around about why DIRECTV canned the
tuner, whose fault it is, and where do we go from here.  Most people are pointing the finger at
Microsoft, and with their history of releases how could you not?  This doesn’t mean however that Microsoft is
totally at fault, but let’s look at the whole situation to see how we got
here. 

Timeline

January
2006
– Microsoft and DIRECTV announce partnership to “develop new ways to expand the reach of
digital music, television and movies throughout the home and to portable
devices.”
  Nothing is said
specifically by either party about a Media Center tuner.

January
2006
– Microsoft employee Sean Alexander says “In the future (timing wasn’t discussed), you’ll be able to have an
installer come out and install a DirecTV tuner into your Media Center PC and
get your local channels complete with DVR.”
 
This however, was not an official Microsoft statement.

January
2007
– We really start asking for information about the assumed DIRECTV
Tuner.  DBSTalk.com does Q&A with
DIRECTV at CES, DIRECTV says “Still in
progress, internal beta testing”
when asked about HTPC Tuner cards.  Confirmation that a tuner card is in the
works.

December
2007
– Microsoft states in an online job posting that they are “working with newly developed dual satellite
tuners”
for the next Media Center release.

January
2008
– CES comes around again and DBSTalk.com gets a flyer from the CES
floor for the HDPC-20.  This is the first
official confirmation that the tuner exists. 
CES attendees hear information about the public unveiling of the tuner
to be scheduled later at CES.  This
didn’t happen however, leaving several people confused.  No one from Microsoft or DIRECTV is talking
now.  DIRECTV had the flyers to give out
at the show, so something happened that caused either Microsoft or DIRECTV to
back out of the public announcement.

February
2008
– Top Media Center OEM Niveus Media now lists “HD Satellite” tuner option on their website with “TBD  (To be determined)” availability.

March
2008
– Microsoft started sending out e-mails for the Fiji (codename for
TV Pack) beta program.  Several leaks
happened around this time including an e-mail asking select beta participates
for information about their DIRECTV account.

July
2008
– Fiji beta testers leak more information including DIRECTV and
H.264 support being pulled from the release. 
It is suggested
by some in the beta
that they never received tuners from DIRECTV.

July
2008
– It is reported that Microsoft will be releasing a second Media
Center update in 2008 with nothing to backup the statement.  The proposed purpose of the second update was
to add H.264 and DIERCTV support.  This
didn’t happen.

September
2008
– Subscription news service Consumer Electronics Daily (CED)
reports that Microsoft “continues to
look at ways
” to make the tuner happen and that news will be announced
at “the appropriate time.” 
DIRECTV made no comment in the article.

November 2008 – Ed Bott finds
a driver for the HDPC-20 in the PDC build of Windows 7.

November
2008
– Microsoft invites several bloggers and journalists to tour the
eHome Labs (no, I wasn’t invited).  Ben
Drawbaugh scores pictures of the DIRECTV HDPC-20 working in Microsoft’s Labs.

December
2008
– DIRECTV e-mails several in the community to tell us that DIRECTV
has “suspended the development of the
HDPC-20 tuner…after assessing the impact of missing the August 2008 release of
Windows Media Center update [Fiji, TV Pack] and considering timing of the next
release.”

Talking a Step Back

The big question now is what does all of this mean and who
is at fault.  Let’s explore a few things
here.

Microsoft is a software company; they don’t make hardware
(generally speaking).  Microsoft’s main
goal is to produce various software frameworks so that other companies can come
in and produce hardware to work with their platform.  I’d actually say that this is the reason
Microsoft has been successful as a company, but it is also their largest fault.

Anyway, Microsoft makes software and third parties make
hardware (and most of the time drivers to go with this hardware).  Seeing as Microsoft is going to produce the
software aspect of this DIRECTV Tuner, it means they want to produce a common
framework to allow third parties to integrate a number of different things into
their Media Center platform.  I’ve gone
over this time and time again, but to refresh I’m talking about things like
H.264, Pay-per-view order, content protection, etc.  DIRECTV on the hand has to make the hardware
(or contract it out) to pair with Microsoft’s software framework.

DIRECTV has suggested that they are suspending develop of
their hardware because of the impact of H.264/DIRECTV support not shipping in
the TV Pack and the wait until the next release. (Windows 7, highly publicized to
have a 2009 ship date)

DIRECTV-less TV Pack,
whose fault?

This is a bit hard to answer because outside of DIRECTV and
Microsoft no one really knows.  What we
do know (or rather, think we know) is that Microsoft had plans of shipping
DIRECTV support in the TV Pack as evidenced by the beta e-mails.  We also know (or think we know), that neither
Microsoft nor DIRECTV shipped tuner to beta testers.  Microsoft then cut H.264 and “subscription-based
satellite TV support” before the TV Pack ship date.  Notice they never said they cut DIRECTV
support.

The main thing we don’t know here is why beta testers
reportedly didn’t get tuners.  Hundreds
of options here, but here are three main ones.

  • Possibility that DIRECTV
    didn’t have stable hardware/drivers
  • Possibility that Microsoft
    had issues with H.264 support in the TV Pack
  • Possibility that Microsoft
    had issues with other software aspects in the TV Pack
  • Possibility that Microsoft
    and DIRECTV are fighting like kids about something

There are various possibilities about why beta testers might
not have been shipped tuners and why support was cut from the release.  I don’t think you can make a clear judgment
about who was at fault knowing what we do.

On the Road to
Windows 7

Given on how Microsoft operates, we knew that the next
chance for DIRECTV support was in Windows 7. 
Microsoft doesn’t push out Media Center updates to add functionality
months after a major release.  Things were
now looking good for Windows 7 DIRECTV support, at least from the outside.  CED published reports saying DIRECTV and
Microsoft are still working together, and Windows 7’s projected release date
keep moving up.

Ed Bott finds the drivers in the Windows 7 build, and then
Ben gets pictures of the tuners in the lab. 
We are all thinking that Windows 7 with DIRECTV is a-go.  DIRECTV then says they are “suspended development” of the tuner and
points to the conflicts with the TV Pack as a prime reason along with the “timing of the next [Media Center] release.”

What’s DIRECTV
Hiding?

Lets say Microsoft and
DIRECTV missed the TV Pack ship date, again we really don’t know why.  In the e-mail statement DIRECTV is basically
implying that they are done with their part and just waiting on Microsoft.  Is this really the case?  I fully believe that Microsoft had 90% of the
software framework in-place to ship with the TV Pack.  In fact, if you look in your RTM TV Pack
registry you can find some DIRECTV bits hiding pretty well.

If DIRECTV was ready and willing to release their tuners,
why cut the project after all your initial expensive and development?  The tuners seem to be real, and if it was
Microsoft who screwed up the TV Pack you would think that DIRECTV is sitting on
a near finished product waiting for Microsoft. 
DIRECTVs enginners can jump back on a new project and leave their
efforts intack for Microsoft to start Windows 7 beta testing (which is
basically 6 months after the TV Pack release).

I’m thinking that DIRECTV might not be a clean in this whole
ordeal as some might think.

DRM, Doubtful to
Blame

Whenever there is a hold-up on a product like this the first
thing in peoeple’s mind is that Microsoft is DRMing it up and thus causing
massive delays.  Considering CableLabs
approved Windows Vista with their very strict content protection guidelines I
think it would be a huge stretch to think that Microsoft was holding up the
project in this way.  Their system
already works, and has been for two years (mostly, DRM might actually be too
protective given the bugs).

It has been suggested to me that DRM might be to blame
because DIRECTV offers service outside of the US.  I was personally expecting to see the DIRECTV
Tuner be US-only, but if it was international this would be a contract issue
between DIRECTV and their content providers.

Who needs who?

Media Center is hardly the platform it should be, and
DIRECTV might have misevaluated the commercial need of such a tuner.  It is also possible that their DIRECT2PC,
TiVo partnership, and their own Multi-room Viewing features could be playing
into things (along with the economy).

Microsoft has no leverage here.  They have a platform that hasn’t lived up to
expectations of any market and they have to be pleading with broadcaster
providers to help them save their platform.

Maybe DIRECTV has come to the conclusion that there focus
should be elsewhere.  Of course, if it
turns out that DIRECTV was not prepared to ship with the TV Pack this is a
godsend for us users.  I want a stable
platform, and with DIRECTV in charge of hardware/drivers for this they need to
have their heart in the game before I want to play.

Ben
argues that DIRECTV
only released a statement because they want to downplay
expectations about the tuner.  I don’t
follow the concept because DIRECTV has no visible reason to do any sort of
damage control.  This is where Microsoft
should have stepped in, but alas has failed to do.  When/if Microsoft makes a statement (which
they need to), it will likely be very simple and there is a good chance it will
not mention DIRECTV by name.

As far as I know, Microsoft’s framework is done for third
parties to integrate DVB-S tuners into Media Center.  What third parties (eg. DIRECTV) do at that
point is largely up to them.  The only
thing I’ve been told by Microsoft is that when two companies are involved they
can’t say anything.  NDAs are play there
just as they would be in any business partnership.

Bottom Line

I firmly believe both companies at a fault, but Microsoft
will always take the most abuse because they can’t seem to conjure up a good
Media Center release.  This is not
DIRECTVs platform falling apart before our eyes, it is Microsoft’s.

Given that I think the framework is there, we might see
other providers step up to the plate and offer solutions.  I strongly suspect others have like projects
in development, but then again so does did DIRECTV, so I guess we have to wait
for an official word at this point.

About that DIRECTV Tuner

Small bits of “news” keep flowing out about the DIRECTV
Tuner for Media Center
.  The ever optimistic
DIRECTV CSRs are promising
that the tuner is good to go for a November launch
, sadly that isn’t going
to happen so don’t get your hopes up.

Once again this is going to be a case of a feature noting
getting in your hands until the next Media Center feature release.  The bad news? 
That just happens to be Windows 7. 
The good news?  PDC is only a
month away and I’d expect Windows 7 betas to start making appearances out before the end
of the year (note there are
several Media Center sessions at PDC
).

Possibly a silver lining to the whole subject, Microsoft
actually made a comment to someone about the tuner!  CED is reporting that DIRECTV and Microsoft
“continue to look at ways” to make the tuner happen and that news will
be announced at “the appropriate time.” 
The title of the article was “DirecTV, Microsoft Continue Work on Media
Center Product.”  DIRECTV weren’t
available for comment.

Two Media Center Updates? Don’t Count on It

Ben at Engadget HD is being told that there might
be a second Media Center release coming this year
.  This is based on his source which has been leaking
stuff directly from the beta
(except this rumor, which has no meaningful info
to back it up).  Based on various things
I would be rather shocked if Microsoft pulled out a second Media Center release
this year.

The concept behind the said release would be to add DIRECTV
and H.264 support, the two main features said to be absent from Fiji’s final
release.  I can’t comment too much on
what is included and what’s not, but Ben’s source doesn’t have anything that
would tell him/her that Microsoft has even thought about a second release this
year.

There are several reasons I wouldn’t expect such a release,
from the beta timeline to other major implications that I’ll cover later.  While I would love to see another release no
matter what it adds, I wouldn’t get your hopes up about this rumor.

Windows Media Center TV Pack and the DIRECTV Dilemma

So
it would seem that the Windows
Media Center TV Pack is indeed Fiji
, at least
according to a report from Engadget HD

Engadget
HD is also reporting that the long
awaited DIRECTV
support in Fiji might not ship.  Sadly, I can’t really
comment on anything because of various NDAs, but it wouldn’t be an understatement
to say such a non-release would be devastating to the market.

Fiji
needs to be a huge release for Media Center as the next foreseeable release
will be Windows 7.  Without a good release that includes features like
DIRECTV support, Microsoft would be opening to door for others (eg. Apple) to
catch up and corner parts of the market.  Microsoft had the clear
advantage the past few years in that the market was still developing and they
got in early (2002).  However with new products shipping daily Microsoft
no longer has any time to wait.

Microsoft Finally Seeking to Globalize HDTV in Media Center

Microsoft is finally getting set to take HDTV in Media
Center outside of the US!  Our first hint
was a few months ago in a job application where Microsoft stated they were
working with European satellite TV providers
.  This just screamed Sky to me, and with Media
Center get H.264 and
DVB-S(2) support
in the next Media Center release it was just a matter of
time until things started to materialize more.

The next step has been taken in the form of another
job application
, this one laying to rest that Microsoft will indeed be
taking HDTV outside of the US.  The job
application asks if those applying are “passionate
about the GLOBAL
(emphasis theirs)
consumer experience”
and that they “thrive
on innovation and…are taking our technology to the rest of the World. Be a
part of the team that brings advanced HDTV to the PC!”

It’s too bad that a large percent of Media Center users have
been so passionate about that global experience and have yet been ignored for
six years.  That said, I strongly believe
that things are finally going to start moving along.  Providing the framework for things like H.264
is huge for TV sources outside the US.  As
DVB-S support will now be in Media Center, the question is will providers
outside the US like Sky adopt the platform? 
I’ve had conversations with some other MVPs like Ian Dixon who paint the
clear picture of commercial implications getting of the way of providers like
Sky jumping in.  There have been some ways
to get DVB-S within
Media Center
for a while now, but I hope we can see official support that
provides encrypted access as a part of Microsoft global initiative. 

Another consideration here is IPTV, and it could be the
starting point for it in Media Center. 
Deployments of Microsoft’s IPTV platform are much greater outside the US
where nearly 20 service providers are currently using it (this compared to only
1 in the US).  I’ve always seen it as
foolish for Microsoft to develop for IPTV in the US, a market that only includes
a couple hundred thousand with AT&T service.  Outside of the US however, the picture looks
much brighter.   Once again, H.264
support plays a huge role here to (as does VC-1).

Digital terrestrial service is another bullet on the
list.  With Freeview getting
ready to go HD
I hope that Microsoft is working on DVB-T2 support, which
will be used to broadcast the new channels. 
Once again this content will be delivered in H.264 which Microsoft
already has working in Media Center.

Sadly, I have no idea on ship times for this.  The framework is set to be there for
satellite services and H.264 video, but there are still a lot of questions
marks.  The job application is very nice and shows that Microsoft is actively looking to pursue support outside the US.  Windows 7 might be the key for
global HDTV support, and while it can never come fast enough I hope that we can
get Microsoft to comment on what they plan on adding before it launches.

This brings up another question, is Windows 7 set to be what Vista was supposed to be in terms of Media Center promises?

Dish Network Tuner Coming Soon?

It has been a
while since we heard
about native Dish Network tuners for Media Center, but
according
to one commenter
on my Media Center beta post some e-mails might have gone
out about testing such a tuner.

I’ve personally heard nothing about Dish Network tuners, and
all that Microsoft has talked about is DIRECTV. 
Those talks started well over
two years ago
, so I find it strange that Dish has managed to jump in under
the radar.

That said the infrastructure will be in place for Dish
Network support.  Media Center will
officially support DVB-S and DVB-S2, so the only part that it needed would be a
tuner that supports Dish Network’s Conditional Access (CA) system.

Short Bits: Media Center Show, Hauppauge HD-PVR, CableCARD

Ian
Dixon had Scott Evans from Microsoft on The Media Center Show
this week
along with AMD talking about AMD Live!

A
lot of information dropped today about Hauppauge HD-PVR’s Component Capture
device
.  I’ve been meaning to do a whole big post about this and how
it relates to Media Center and other products like SageTV but never found the
time so here is the quick version.

Some
information about the device, it is a single input (also has passthrough)
Component video capture device that encodes to H.264 (13.5Mbs max) at up to
1080i  It is expected to go for around $250 in early May, produces AVCHD recordings
perfect for authoring to Blu-ray Discs, etc, etc.  Product page is
here
.  It will not work with Media Center out-of-the-gate, Media
Center doesn’t support H.264 capture.  Expect that part to get added in
Fiji, but I doubt Hauppauge is working directly with Microsoft here so no clue
when working Media Center support will be added.  This has ramifications
in the content protection field; expect content owners to start looking at
enabling ICT on Blu-ray Discs.  That means a max output of 540p unless
HDMI-HDCP is used.  Brent Evans has the blog to
subscribe to for up-to-the-minute information on the device.

I’m
questioning if the 13.5Mbps can be changed via a registry entry, the encoder
can do more.  Price is high at the expected $250/device; you also have
to add your two cable/satellite STBs that connect directly which puts you at
CableCARD prices for a dual tuner setup. Upside is all content is unprotected
and no OEM PC is needed.  SageTV will benefit greatly, they will now have
a true HD PVR and Extenders
to boot
.

Engadget
HD confirms
the obvious that DIRECTV tuner testing
is part of the Media Center
beta
.  I’m not happy with whoever keeps leaking this stuff BTW. 
You got into a private beta, be happy and keep your mouth shut.  It was clear DIRECTV was a part of this, leaking it means less opportunities for beta access in general.  You thought over a year wait for this beta was bad, wait until the next when it skips any type of public access and goes only to Microsoft employees and partners. On the
plus side, hardware loan agreement because include a PC so the tuner works
without a special BIOS.  This puts the chances for a retail consumer
installed device pretty high.

Ben
Drawbaugh is posting about his
first day with a Dell XPS 420
which he just got to ditch his TiVo’s.  Ed Bott has a similar overview
of his CableCARD setup.