Microsoft Taking Media Center to Headless Appliances’

I’ve just gotten a tip from a very reliable source that
Microsoft is looking to take Media Center off the desktop and turn it into a CE
appliance.  The only information that I
have is that it is planned to be a headless device of some sort.  Other details are very scarce at this point
with no timeline to speak of, but I’ve been assured that Microsoft is actively
working on such a project.

the Home Server “Media Center UI integration” that I just said wouldn’t happen
the start of this project
?  Does it
even have anything to do with Windows Home Server?  Might Softsled
be making an appearance in this all
Maybe that technology they
got from WebGuide
?  I have no idea,
because clearly such a product would go against everything I’ve ever said about
Media Center.

So, I’m a bit shocked that Microsoft is looking to do
anything like this.  For years I have
been saying that such a device would fail in the market due to its un-doubtable
high cost in comparison to other CE devices like TiVo’s and the $10/month
cable/satellite DVR.

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.

Thoughts and
  I’m not going to ask what
you would pay for such a device, rather
what do you think your Mom would pay?
I’ve established in the past that enthusiasts and power users want such a
device and therefore might be willing to pay for it, but what about your Mom or
other “average” users?  Keep in mind that
if this is a headless device, you have to factor in Extenders for each room you
actually want to watch content in.

Looking at this from the outside with no information on what
it planned, I still say such a product would fail to reach the mass
market.  Now for the enthusiasts, power
user, and custom-install channel this could be a great move.  That brings up another question, is Microsoft shifting their focus for Media
Center from developing for the “mass market”
to developing for enthusiasts,
power users, and the custom install channel (Remember
their presence at CEDIA

26 thoughts on “Microsoft Taking Media Center to Headless Appliances’

  1. Well a headless WHS/Media Center solution would be interesting for multi-TV households – getting central storage & recording and distribution thru PC’s, extenders and Xbox 360’s. Basically adding a twin tuner to a WHS box and you’re set. The headless server part would be a $500 box and if I were Microsoft I’d market it to market it as the ultimate nerve center of the digital home – storage, backup, DVR, IPTV, downloading/purchasing/renting video & music, multi-zone audio, place shifting (watch your recordings on your mobile or laptop remotely) etc. etc.

    Also I’d hope they add software that takes care of the codec mess that Vista finds itself in, and require enough horsepower on the hardware site to server HD to two or three clients simultaneously.

    As for clients, extenders (dedicated and as part of Xbox 360) make sense, and Softsled clients should be supported (just as WHS clients can be added to any Vista/XP PC, so should the client software for this WHS-MC device). I’d hope you can then schedule recordings from every client and even remotely, and perhaps add user profiles so the kids get to schedule their own separately from the parents. Also I can imagine audio-only, cheap clients for multi-zone audio streaming (passive like Airport Express or interactive as Squeezeboxes).

    This way, power users no longer need two PC’s to be switched on all the time (your media center and your WHS) and new people to home server and MC get a more compelling offering without having to spend (much) more than a regular PC, while saving on PC’s throughout the house (in the cases that an extender is sufficient).

    I’d say 500 US$ for a dual tuner-equipped WHS-MC machine with 2 x 1TB storage and 150 US$ extenders should shift quite a few units.

    By the way, in many ways SageTV already covers most of the ideas above, which is why I’m now in the proces of switching to it after many years of MCE usage.

  2. This makes perfect since to me. They are once again following Apple’s model with AppleTV.

    Microsoft appears to be working under the idea that to be “innovative,” you need to copy the work of other innovative companies. Take Zune, the entire model (device, service, restrictions) is basically ripped-off from iPod and iTunes. The Microsoft Live project is just following whatever Google releases. Even those stupid and embarassing Gates/Seinfeld commercials were a pathetic attempt to duplicate the success of the PC/Mac ads.

  3. Ok, I didn’t get the headless thing. I guess this would be very different from AppleTV. More like the oringinal Moxi devices that were supposed to come out some years ago, or DirecTV’s Home Media Server which also never saw the light of day.

  4. Chris,

    I think it could potentially be a good thing in that it increases awareness and maybe provides stability to the platform. I would be ok with the direction personally as long as this is only one option in getting media center versus THE only option.

    I know a few folks that like my media center setup and would buy a headless appliance for the living and run a few linksys extenders around the house. They would not care to tinker as much as I do and would pay for the extra features and functionality.

    I am just happy to hear that they are trying to figure out a way to get behind this amazing product and take it to the next level.

  5. If this is true, it has a lot of potential (both to simplify and also confuse).

    Today, Microsoft’s “whole house” media center model for the typical household is to purchase a “family room” or “office” computer like a Dell XPS 420 with TV tuners (ATSC or CableCARD), and hook up MC extenders to it. For an example of this model, see the “Microsoft Digital Home Makeover”. There are lots of other examples from Microsoft showing this same model.

    From a Media Center perspective, a headless Media Center server combined with a WHS would be great. Housholds looking for centeralized storage and centralized media center get the best of both in one computer.

    However, if Microsoft continues to include Media Center as part of the Vista/Win7 OS, there would have to be some form of integration between the MC running on the headless server and MC running on desktops. This would mean that “softsled” would really be a requirement in this type of environment. Otherwise, the existing “family room” or “office” computer that used to be able to watch TV (as the MC hub), would now be locked out. These central use computers would become Media Center “islands”, complicating the “whole house” media center model.

    Another question that comes to mind is what about those families that have already purchased a WHS, like a HP Mediasmart server? Do they get an upgrade to add MC functionality? Or do they now have to purchase yet another box to get this added functionality, meaning they will have two WHSs running (one with MC and one without)? How would that work?

    Lastly, would this new headless MC / WHS be offered as OEM (so DIYers can use it) or will it only be available to system builders?

  6. Potentially an awsome move…but I am sure there will be some short comming of features that will kill it.

    Needs to handle more than 2 tuners, needs to support more than cable and ATSC tuners (Dirrect TV)..

    Combined with a WHS machine would be great. Problem there is if this were to happen I am sure as with the general progress of MCE, all of us who own a WHS machine will need to buy a new one rather than upgrade.

  7. Does anyone have any confidence that Microsoft would do this right? My main concern is that media center seems to be under-staffed right now. Would they be spreading themselves thin?

    If they are really going to do this, it should be part of xbox 720. Add cablecard readers to an xbox and use the mce interface. Not out of the realm of possibility since a sub $100 video card can run HD just fine.

    My mom would pay $0 because she is confused by DVRs.

  8. So does this mean the “wait until Windows 7” talk is incorrect? And instead we’re seeing the evolution of Microsoft Media Center into more of a pre-packaged CE device that is more Tivoesque?

    This is very interesting stuff – and raises lots of questions…

  9. My guess is this might have something to do with U-Verse type services (IPTV). The software for Uverse STBs is already by Microsoft. I’m picturing instead of leasing two big tuner things, they will just install one headless box in your house and lease you media extenders. You probably could get it as cheap as anything else, but it would be much more powerful. Well, here’s hoping at least 🙂

  10. Give me a box I can put in the basement with 4 DirecTV tuners and lots of storage, and make it just work. I’m sick of dealing with different video card drivers, sound drivers, etc.

    Then I’ll buy extenders for all my TVs. Keep the server/tuner box below $1000, and the rest of my family will buy the same setup.

  11. I’m not sure a headless server would sell all that well in the mass market, a server that functions as a set top at the main tv, then serves to extenders in other rooms might (if that makes sense). They could also roll all that into WHS as well and cover both markets.

    As for what one might pay for such a device, I think it’s entirely dependent on what TV support it has. In the US if it supports Cable and Sat native (replacing STB’s) then quite a bit I’d imagine. In Canada on the other hand where we get S-Video support and thats it, then not much more than a TiVo series 2 $300-$400 maybe?

  12. Most common users are pretty happy with cable boxes. There is nothing to them. If they stop working, folks call the cable company. I don’t see folks paying more than $99 for this thing.

    I’ll reiterate what has already been said. Give me 4-6 DirectTV tuners and sign me up at any reasonable cost.

    The single reason MCE has not taken off is that it lacks good HDTV support and companies like Dell refuse to make a system that looks decent next to a TV. When my friends see my system they think its cool, but then they talk about the 30+ HD channels they get with their HDDVR from Time Warner.

  13. I had an UltimateTV way back when… which was a DirecTV DVR that MS designed. That UI eventually moved to the PC as media center… now they are moving it back to an STB.

    I’m hoping this STB device is a WHS based device but I’m not holding my breath. I just don’t see them successfully creating a standalone STB to compete with the cableco or Sat company dvr’s… it will have to do more than that.

  14. I think this makes sense for the custom installer market; I doubt it would be offered in the retail consumer space. CE is used as a managed change environment with stability being a primary concern. My thinking is this goes to AV Pros for custom installs, or to ATT U-verse or other content distribution schemes.
    I would take a look at it if it did hit the retail space but would not hazard a price without a list of features. If you combine the 360 with Media Center CE, dual hybrid tuners and a 500GB drive I would like to see it at the $500 mark. It could be subsidized down to that price or lower by media subscriptions.
    Running headless and delivering content via extenders relieves the need for a video card capable of decoding high-def and or scaling. If Microsft doesn’t make it headless, they’ll just end up making a MediaCenter edition Xbox- That new Cray looks good for it.
    Microsoft has a good framework for delivering content- I think they need to focus on actual content- even the Live Marketplace (videos) would be a good start.

  15. “…take Media Center off the desktop…”? I hope you mean “porting to” and not off. Taking it off the desktop would indicate they’re effectively killing MCE for the enthusiast. Anyone here know how to build a CE appliance? Given the price of the extender (CE appliance) I’m guessing it’s going to be a pretty penny. Especially when you have to buy all new extenders that work with it.
    I guess it doesn’t really matter since this will surely be as fast as DirecTV integration, PIP or sub channel guide data.

  16. Makes perfect sense to formalise a MS offering in the space. There are many developments already going on in this area. If you look at the “networked media tank” or NMT units like the popcorn hour a-110, eGreat or other units with “updated” interfaces and operating systems. There is a fast growing developer network around these as well.

    A polished MS offering that interfaced directly to a main media PC or NAS would be great.

  17. Ok, now think about this…

    What if Microsoft partnered with Verizon and offered this as a higher priced option over their standard DVR (Kind of like what Comcast is supposedly doing with TIVO)

    You now get seamless Media Center HD capability, whole home audio/video, and WHS in an “appliance” that Verizon would be willing to troubleshoot. Plus, maybe Verizon now “leases” XBox 360’s (with verizon branded options) for their extenders…

  18. If they do it right, then it might not be bad.

    1. Keep it in Windows and have a dedicated STB.
    2. Features need to stay the same between both lines, so if the PVR offers on thing, it must be available for the PC.
    4. Don’t drop support for PCs
    5. Keep them on the same time release schedule, so if Jan 23 is when the STB will come out, Jan 23rd there will be an update for Media Center to apply the same features.
    6. Dont drop support for PCs. (yes, I said it twice)

    It might be nice to have a STB with Media Center but, I do like what I can do with the PC side of my HTPC (from games to fixing other computers on the fly) and a STB wont be able to do that….

  19. Typical Microsoft. It has taken them YEARS to catch on to what most of us figured out 4 years ago — that MCE needs to be a device unto itself, and they seem to have figured it out too late.

    I use an MCE “server” in my basement, literally in a utility closet. The only reason it needs a display at all is for troubleshooting.

    Nobody truly wants a PC sitting next to their TV, and few people want their family’s TV recordings to be interfered with by the instability that a frequently used M$ operating system typically exhibits.

    Thanks for figuring out that this is supposed to be an appliance, Microsoft. This just in: people like to carry their music in their pockets — oh wait — you figured that one out already — also four years too late (as usual).

  20. Media Center requires too much tinkering and fiddling to be a CE product.

    And MSFT need to treat it as an application not a part of the OS so it can decouple its development cycle with that of the OS. Waiting 3 years between major versions is not acceptable for a product like this

  21. Windows Home Server seems to have been done right with the same basic idea. I’m not saying it will ever have the adoption rate it should, but mind runs in the basement without issue 24/7. Maybe they could pull this off, but MSFT is to far done the other path to back up.

  22. I second the comment about XBox 360 becomes Media Center. There is no reason that even a rev of the 360 console (let alone a follow-on) can incorporate in hardware all that is necessary to best a Tivo and PS combined, 2 or 3 tuners included. If you add in the Tivo subscription fee, a $500 box is reasonable. Go with whatever purchase plan you want, but XBox Live + Netflix or Amazon Unbox isn’t a bad place to start.
    Assuming that downloadable High Def is going to be commonplace in a year or so, either leave off the Blu-Ray or drop in a $200 option. Again, if Tivo can find the hardware to do a Tivo HD for their price, MS can do the same. Give the OS away. Make it 64 Bit with signed drivers and auto-update to boot. Just plan to sell them in the same volume as Tivo.
    A Verizon partnership isn’t bad, either.

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