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

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?

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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

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

    extendergate? Really dude?
    Loverock Davidson
    • That actually makes me feel validated

      Truly, the sun always shines on Microsoft in your world. Amazing!

      Updated to add: My intent was certainly ironic. I thought having the word "obscure" in the title would make the irony more obvious. Humor is tricky stuff and in this case too subtle. No, this isn't a scandal of epic proportions. Rather, it's a small example of how weak links in a large ecosystem can affect the most loyal of customers.
      Ed Bott
      • RE: Extendergate: What an obscure hardware glitch says about Microsoft's future

        @Ed Bott <br><br>Hmm. I think he was referring to the "gate" as a hackneyed media phrase. This is not MS anyway, it's Cisco.<br><br>I had a similar thing happen when I bought a hideously expensive licence for Thinstal. After being told their virtualisation didn't quite work with Vista, they turned off the authorisation servers (yes they had a server to be checked everytime their software ran) and I was out money and functionality.<br><br>I'd like to meet the software engineers who decided a server would always be up and didn't bother to code a Plan B <img border="0" src="http://www.cnet.com/i/mb/emoticons/wink.gif" alt="wink">
        tonymcs@...
      • RE: Extendergate: What an obscure hardware glitch says about Microsoft's future

        @tonymcs

        [i]I think he was referring to the "gate" as a hackneyed media phrase.[/i]
        Exactly right! That is what I was implying with everything being a "gate" now.
        Loverock Davidson
      • Perpetual server uptime? PSSHH!

        @tonymcs:

        "I'd like to meet the software engineers who decided a server would always be up and didn't bother to code a Plan B"

        Welcome to the eventuality of cloud computing.
        Joe_Raby
      • I go with LD on this one, Ed

        Does [i]everything[/i] have to be a "gate" anymore?

        What would Nixon say?
        John Zern
    • RE: Extendergate: What an obscure hardware glitch says about Microsoft's future

      @Loverock Davidson I had the same reaction.
      MikeR666
    • RE: Extendergate: What an obscure hardware glitch says about Microsoft's future

      My intent was certainly ironic. I thought having the word "obscure" in the title would make the irony more obvious. Humor is tricky stuff and in this case too subtle.
      Ed Bott
      • RE: Extendergate: What an obscure hardware glitch says about Microsoft's future

        @Ed Bott You have to be careful with irony around an American audience Ed, it is difficult for the average person, but (as I have discovered after living 10 years in the US) irony is especially hard for Americans, always was it seems.

        I think most Americans today thinks that if something is "irony", you can probably stick a magnet to it.
        terjeb@...
      • RE: Extendergate: What an obscure hardware glitch says about Microsoft's future

        terjeb@...

        That was one of the funniest things I have read in ages!
        glennmcc64
  • RE: Extendergate: What an obscure hardware glitch says about Microsoft's future

    This is one of my concerns about technology in general. One of the worst abusers of this are the cellular companies. You buy a phone, commit to a 2yr contract and usually within the first year they stop updating them and go the, "Oh if you want that you can buy our new phone" route. I'm hoping with WP7 and updates coming directly from Microsoft we won't be left out in the cold as quickly, although I don't kid myself. At some point support will dry up for it, like all technology. As long as the support lasts as long as any committments I have to make I'm good with that. Beyond that I look at it as icing on the cake.
    bleeman
    • Another extinct species on the Windows ecosystem...

      @bleeman : as per my view, WP7 will be out the door just as swiftly as Kin, PlaysForSure (really?!), Spot, SideShow, Smart Display, Media Center Extender, and the list goes on and on...<br><br>So next time you see a "Windows" plus something or "Windows Media Center" plus something, it's shelf life is going to be measured in days, not years.
      cosuna
      • So true

        @cosuna MS has not had a very good track record for supporting their hardware initiatives.
        happyharry_z
      • Let's see: Windows + XP = Windows XP; how long has it been around?

        Windows XP, since 2001 = how many days?<br><br>Okay, how many years? <br><br>The support for that system won't be up until sometime around 2014? Again, how many days is that?
        adornoe
      • RE: Extendergate: What an obscure hardware glitch says about Microsoft's future

        @cosuna This is simply blatantly false and ignorant. Not a lot of companies in the world support their products for as long as Microsoft and maintain reasonable compatibility throughout.

        Also, this isn't a Microsoft issue, it is a Cisco issue. Why even bring Microsoft into the discussion? A Cisco device stopped working, it was a Cisco dumb-ass thing and it is Cisco that needs to fix it. Should MS give them a helping hand? Why would Cisco need a helping hand getting a dumb webserver up and running again?
        terjeb@...
    • Support, full vs minimal

      @bleeman
      I think that Full support should be available through the end of contract, expiration date, warranty date, whatever applies. Beyond that, I expect the minimal support required to let the hardware continue to operate in (possibly limited) function for a reasonable lifetime.

      I don't think that a Windows Media Extender, or a laptop, or a cellphone, or the original Xbox should become COMPLETELY nonfunctional at the end of two years. Perhaps new games, features etc won't play, work, but the old ones should continue, and your cell phone should remain active for phone calls assuming you pay the bill, at least for a 5 year life.

      If its just a matter of running a rarely touched server, keep it up. If you're going out of business, perhaps a goodbye patch on the server to delete the requirement to phone home.

      I've used many "bleeding edge" devices. My Nokia 770 was never as functional as I wished, but it didn't LOSE functionality, and some updates occurred before its marginalization. I expect at least that much from Cisco and Microsoft.
      Aesculapian
  • RE: Extendergate: What an obscure hardware glitch says about Microsoft's future

    Ed - thanks for posting this and giving it the coverage it doesn't deserve. I'm 1/2 kidding -- I have 2 extenders and they are core to my whole-home DVR ecosystem. They are, as they say, "in a production system." So I can't afford to have them fail.

    I was somehow able to kill their internet access just yesterday before they bricked themselves. Not sure why I was so fortunate, but I'm counting my blessings.

    What is also the shame of all of this is just how remarkable the WMC + Extender solution really is if you have the wherewithal to get it all setup and configured. For those who are capable of putting in that effort, the result is a whole-home media management solution that trumps all but the multi-million dollar custom media solutions millionaires get to enjoy.

    Microsoft never figured out how to properly monetize and popularize this amazing solution, unfortunately, which is why OEMs gave up on extenders and the like.

    It pains me to see Google stealing the spotlight with a quite inferior product from most perspective.

    You can read my analysis of WMC vis-a-vis GoogleTV at The Green Button (http://thegreenbutton.com/blogs/digitaldreams/archive/2010/10/30/windows-media-center-vs-google-tv.aspx)

    Cheers, and here's to hoping that Cisco comes through for the bold, the elite, the almost extinct Media Center enthusiast. I'm proud to be one of them.
    emailme@...
  • RE: Extendergate: What an obscure hardware glitch says about Microsoft's future

    Apple TV. Just Works, 'nuff said!
    james347
    • Hilarious

      @james347

      Andy Kaufman would be proud.
      Ed Bott
    • I'll give you that, AppleTV works just fine

      as a doorstop, too! ;)
      John Zern