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.

10 thoughts on “DIRECTV and Microsoft: What Went Wrong

  1. You’re right. We may never know what happened, unless someone on the inside decides to talk.

    However, considering that the HDPC-20 was really nothing more than a tuner (something DirecTV has quite a bit of experience with), I find it hard to believe that the delays were due to issues with the HDPC-20.

    On the other hand, Microsoft has already stated that they had to roll the TV Pack out when they did to meet OEM deadlines. Considering that the beta application announcement for Fiji was made on TGB in the Ask Jessica forum around a year or more before it actually started, I think MS was having to make some major changes to the software. I’m thinking they had to cut H.264/DirecTV support because it wasn’t ready in time.

    As to why DirecTV decided to drop the HDPC-20 altogether? Who knows. I have a feeling that your assumption about MRV and DirecTV-PC are correct, though DirecTV-PC in it’s current form is a resource hogging piece of s**t (it’s written by Cyberlink, after all). They may have just gotten tired of waiting on Microsoft and decided to cut their losses. Although the drivers were in the Win 7 beta, MediaCenter may still not be ready for the job.

    Finally, IIRC there was a similar announcement regarding Dish and MS working together on what sounded to be a similar project. Seems strange that we haven’t heard any more about that project either.

  2. Very interesting post, but for the love of God—PLEASE re-read your writing and do some basic editing (“there” vs. “their”, etc.).

  3. Paul: I’ve been doing nothing but studying for 3 math finals for the past week, I think I’ll live with my crappy grammar after just writing a 4 page essay on DIRECTV.

  4. Since we are discussing conspiracy theories, I’ll throw one out there. When the DirectTV deal was in the works, DTV was owned by Murdoch. Now that Malone has taken control, perhaps he’s had a change of heart.

    Another possibility is that TiVo was able to score an exclusivity deal with DTV. We already know that a new TiVo/DTV unit should be out during the middle of next year and considering that DTV signed a patent agreement with TiVo, it would have possibly given them the muscle to work something like this into a contract. Considering how they were screwed by DTV’s prior administration, it wouldn’t be all that crazy of a request for them to make. Of course this is just wild speculation, so we don’t know for sure, but it is possible that TiVo could have been the one to blame.

  5. Great summery. Personally I’m feeling pretty disenfranchised by direct tv over this (and other things).

    …” and their own Multi-room Viewing features”

    do you know somthing I don’t? I don’t think that there is any multi-room viewing right now. Shame to, having two of their dvr’s on my network and having them to stupid to talk is just annoying.

  6. First of all, directv owns their distribution network. If you ran direcTV would you give away free access to that network to another business?

    Cablecard happened, not because the cable companies wanted it, but because the fcc mandated open cable. The cable companies HATE cablecard… and not because of the technology.

    Any business’s job is to stay in business. They need a compelling reason to open up their systems to someone else.

    My take is that MS didn’t have enough leverage to make direcTV continue with this partnership. MS gets access to a large subscriber base, what does direcTV get?

    MS should stick with back-door solutions (like HD-PVR) and up-and-coming options like online content until such time that DireTV and the CableCos HAVE to make a deal with them. That’s called doing business.

  7. Al… Well put.. It is so nice to hear a good take on reality vs. all the babble that comes out of us tech people about what is what (lol at myself). I think one of the reasons this industry has not taken off (PC centric A/V) is because us tech people cannot get out of their own way and do not have the business insight. Everything is always about technology/software and the fact is this is about big business. I agree with 100%, that msft should just keep pressing on, distribution will ultimately go through teleco, cable and local WiFi mesh and hopefully the PC people will not obfuscate the real issues and cause and effect 🙂

  8. Nice comments and (Chris) good insight and review of the M$FT and HDPC-20. The comments and addtional conspiracy theories are also well thought out. (IMHO) It makes sense for DTV and M$FT to move and continue on current developments. On the media center showpodcaSt 180, charlie owen basically made comments that the H.264 integration was more diffcult than expected, one reason that h.264 and HDPC-20 was not included in the TV PACK. Also, somehwere there was mention that M$FT EHOME team was not given a support budget to support integration of the TV PACk so minimal testing was done. Anyways, in all I just hope that a headless unit or tuner that supports digital broadcast is available on DIY sytems because OEM’s are still too expensive.

  9. Looking at the industry as a whole (CE, cable, satellite, broadcast and even radio) the question should be: why haven’t they come up with a tuning protocol that would allow many different devices to communicate with tuners of all kinds and support the interactivity required?

    Such a protocol already exists for the old Digital VHS and by using 1394a was simpler to install than CableCARD. This protocol also had a form of DRM which provided for moving media among devices. This was a fairly complete solution because while an IR remote was used with the display, the display forwarded commands to devices through the daisy chained 1394a cabling. Interactive services are not supported by the protocol, however, the protocol has been expanded to support USB and ethernet and is intended to support 1394 fiber.

    With the consumer electronics industry moving to provide multi-brand component integration using HDMI, I think that fingers must be pointed at the satellite and cable industries. CEA and MS could be lobbying congress too to add to FCC mandates.

    This explains in part, why AMD sold off their ATi media chipset group and why Microsoft is emphasizing the Internet delivery of content.

  10. I think the deal-breaker for DirecTV was that TV Pack 2008 requires a clean install of Windows. Which, means that unless it’s bundled with a new PC (a la CableCARD), it’s not practical for existing computer users (until Windows 7).

    I do agree with others that the project is not dead. I think that DirecTV is just going to let things sit until Windows 7 gets out the door. Microsoft will have all the hooks in Windows 7, so no reinstallation of Windows will be needed… and then they can spend 6-8 months after that to perfect the hardware, firmware, and drivers. And, all of that can be done on a stable version of Windows that isn’t the mess that became TV Pack 2008.

    Ergo, we can envision the HR-20 shipping in late 2009/early 2010. That’s why it makes sense for DirecTV to suspend, rather than cancel the project. Consumers were promised something that just won’t happen for another year at least. Smart move on DirecTV’s part, though I’m sure Microsoft wasn’t happy about how it was handled (not that they don’t deserve it, this is the third consumer outrage from eHome this year alone… TV Pack 2008 and CableCARD DRM/issues were the other two).

Leave a Reply to Davis Freeberg Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *