Extendergate: What an obscure hardware glitch says about Microsoft's future

Summary:A few days ago, some Windows Media Center enthusiasts got a rude shock, as Linksys extender devices suddenly stopped working. What's wrong? And what does it say about the health of the Windows ecosystem?

Update 9-Nov: See comment from Cisco at end of post.

 A few days ago, some Windows Media Center enthusiasts got a rude shock, as Linksys DMA2100 and DMA2200 extender devices suddenly stopped working. I read initial reports of this issue on Friday and confirmed earlier today that my Linksys extender was displaying the same symptoms.

And I'm not alone: At Microsoft's official Media Center support community, The Green Button, a forum discussion on the apparently widespread issue is now up to 19 23 pages.

The Extendergate issue affects a tiny but very vocal number of Media Center enthusiasts. I paid $250 or so for this exact device back around New Year's 2008. It's been in pretty much constant use since then without any problems. (Here's my original review, and here are some detailed specs on how extenders differ from Media Center PCs.) The price of the DMA2100 was cut in half less than a year after it debuted and continued to drop steadily over succeeding months, but it didn't matter. They just didn't sell, nor did other similar devices from HP and D-Link. Those devices failed, and the OEMs bailed, because the Xbox 360 did the same functions and a lot more for not much more money. Today the Xbox 360 is the one and only surviving extender device for Windows Media Center.

I'm still studying the technical details of this issue (and waiting for input from Cisco, which owns the Linksys brand), but it looks like the current problem is caused by a poorly designed function in the extender device designed to automatically check for firmware updates. In the U.S. (although reportedly not in Europe), the update server is offline. The device is unable to contact the update server, a failure that cascades into a failure to connect to the Media Center PC. The result is a black screen from the DMA2100, whose job is to "extend" the Media Center PC interface and stream its content to a TV and surround sound audio system in another room.

I've confirmed the problem on a Linksys DMA2100 here. I've also confirmed that the other pieces of the chain—the PC, TV, and network, and Windows Media Center itself—are all functioning properly. When I connected an HP-branded Media Center extender using the exact same cables that had been plugged into the Linksys device, the extender function worked perfectly.

The Green Button discussion thread contains what appears to be a reasonable, if slightly complicated workaround that involves disabling the Internet connection, setting a dummy DNS address for the extender, and then re-enabling the Internet connection after the PC and extender are reunited. I'm waiting to hear back from Cisco and will update as I get more information.

Dropping support for a discontinued device is understandable under some circumstances, especially if the device and others in its category have been around for five years or more. But these devices were still new and widely promoted as little as two years ago. They were designed to work with a core feature of Windows Vista and Windows 7, both of which are current and fully supported Microsoft products.

Cisco has a responsibility to fix this problem quickly. Microsoft needs to twist their arm and, if necessary, send in help. Third-party partnerships are as important as ever in the Windows ecosystem (just ask the makers of Windows Phone 7 devices and apps).

If this issue gets repaired promptly, it's just an unfortunate technical glitch. If it lingers long enough, it joins a long list of similar ecosystem failures, like PlaysForSure devices, Spot watches, Windows Mobile 6.5, and (of course) the ill-fated Kin. Those failures add up to a lot of lost confidence over time, and Microsoft can ill afford anything that sows doubt and confusion at this point in its lifecycle.

Update 9-Nov: Cisco has apparently fixed the back-end issue that caused this outage. They have not issued any statement on the issue, however. My e-mail to a corporate contact went unanswered. My support ticket has not been responded to. The official @cisco_support Twitter alias opened a discussion thread that has also not received any response from Cisco support. 

Update 9-Nov 1:00 PM PST Cisco's Director of Corporate Communications, Karen Sohl, sends the following comment:

Wanted to let you know the issue for the DMAs have been resolved and were back online yesterday.  This server was down as a part of a maintenance procedure Friday.  We encountered a reboot issue but were able to find and fix the issue.

We apologize for any inconvenience this has caused to our customers. 

Via a follow-up e-mail, I asked "Can you tell me what Cisco is doing to ensure that this situation doesn't happen again? Do these products have an official end-of-life date after which they will not be supported at all?"

This response was immediate:

As far as ensuring this will never happen again - its hard to guarantee 100% - but our goal is have it working all the time.  Sometimes we and other companies run into unforeseen issues - but we do the best we can to fix quickly and get people up and going again.  The plan is to continue to have servers run for these products so customers do not have to worry about a shut off date.

I've confirmed that this glitch is fixed, at least for now. A permanent fix would replace the firmware on affected devices so it no longer checked for updates, but doesn't appear to be on the table for a discontinued product.

 

 

Topics: Hardware, Mobility, Networking

About

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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