TV Pack headaches reveal Microsoft's Media Center dilemma

TV Pack headaches reveal Microsoft's Media Center dilemma

Summary: These days, the passionate Media Center community is spending much of its energy complaining, loudly, that Microsoft is ignoring its wishes and moving too slowly with development. Why are Media Center fanatics so worked up over it? And will the controversy over its release blow over?

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Of all the features included with Windows Vista, Media Center is unique. The Media Center application is built into the Home Premium and Ultimate editions of Vista, which means it’s on at least three out of every four PCs sold at retail today. Its predecessor, Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, was the default installation for most consumer PCs for more than two years as well. Together, that means Media Center is installed on as many as 200 million PCs worldwide.

But the Media Center feature set runs deep, offering high-end capabilities that appeal strongly to digital media enthusiasts. That enthusiasm has inspired some passionate communities, the largest of which is The Green Button, a community site with more than 112,000 registered members. (The Green Button was recently acquired by Microsoft, but its management and independent character have remained unchanged.) Down Under, the Australian Media Center Community boasts more than 11,000 members, and other large Media Center communities exist in Europe and Asia.

You can identify TV Pack by this updated version number, 6.1.1000.18273With all those passionate users, you’d think that a trip to The Green Button and other community sites would be a Media Center lovefest. Guess again. These days, the community is spending much of its energy complaining, loudly, that Microsoft is ignoring its wishes and moving too slowly with Media Center development. The volume kicked up to 11 after Microsoft announced the release to manufacturing of its Windows Media Center TV Pack (formerly code-named “Fiji”) and acknowledged that it would be officially available only on new systems sold through OEMs.

I’ve been digging into that story for the past month or so, including some hands-on tests of the TV Pack running in Windows Vista. In the gallery that accompanies this post, I have an in-depth look at the TV Pack in operation. In this post, I want to focus on the disconnect between the Media Center development team and its community.

What we have here, according to the most vocal critics in the Media Center community, is a failure. What we really have here, I think, is a failure to communicate.

The controversy over the TV Pack release highlights the age-old conflict between the needs of a mass market and those of an enthusiast community.

  • Media Center enthusiasts want frequent releases and esoteric features and are willing to sacrifice some stability and usability to be on the bleeding edge.
  • Microsoft wants to create a platform for as many customers as possible, with their primary goals being predictability, stability, and simplicity. Enthusiasts write the reviews, but OEMs write the big checks.

When you’re building a software platform that reaches millions of people worldwide, you have a powerful incentive to move slowly and make changes with great care. Enthusiasts want a new release every month and will tolerate endless tweaks and troubleshooting; the platform builder is thinking over a much longer term. OEMs want to know that the hardware they design will work for a long, profitable life cycle and don’t want to find out that a seemingly innocuous update broke their most popular configuration and cost them a small fortune in support calls. Back in December 2006, Media Center Program Manager Charlie Owen put that expectation into concrete terms when he wrote:

Of course, we are still very early in the lifetime of this platform -- at the time of this writing, just over a year since it's been commercially available to consumers. Stick with the platform for 10-15 more years and let's see what happens to this request over time.

Whoa, did he say 10-15 years? That’s a long-term commitment…

For what it’s worth, I’m indisputably a Media Center enthusiast, but I’m firmly in the “stable long-term platform” camp. It’s been frustrating to wait years for features such as digital cable support and HD-compatible extenders to arrive, but the stable, high-performing system I have today tells me the wait was worth it.

So, what is the TV Pack? Why are Media Center fanatics so worked up over it? Is it something the Windows installed base will notice or want? And will the controversy over the TV Pack’s release blow over? Those are some of the questions I answer in this post.

Much of the ill will between Media Center enthusiasts and the group that develops the software at Microsoft can be traced directly to terrible communications. The evolution of the TV Pack, which until a few months ago was known only by its code name “Fiji,” is a case study in how not to communicate with passionate users. To untangle this complicated history, I decided to tackle this topic in Q&A format:

So, what is the TV Pack?

The Windows Media Center TV Pack (I’ll call it the TV Pack, for short) is an update to Windows Vista Home Premium and Ultimate, delivered as an executable package to be applied as patch for x86 and x64 editions. It replaces the original Vista Media Center code with a new version, 6.1.1000.18273. Its primary purpose is to enable support for broadcast TV standards in regions outside the United States. In an August 8 post at The Green Button, Microsoft’s Ben Reed, Product Marketing Manager for Windows Media Center, provided this feature list:

The Windows Media Center TV Pack is primarily targeted at adding support for additional international broadcast standards including:

  • Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting – Terrestrial (ISDB-T) Digital television standard for Japan
  • Digital Video Broadcasting – Satellite (DVB-S) free-to-air satellite standards  in  Europe
  • Digital Video Broadcasting – Terrestrial (DVB-T) digital television with  improved user experience in Europe
  • ClearQAM (Unencrypted Digital Cable) in the United States
  • Interactive television with integrated Broadcast Markup language (BML) in Japan and Multimedia and Hypermedia information coding Expert Group (MHEG) (MHEG5) in Europe

 

TV Pack supports up to four digital tunersThe TV Pack also includes some changes to the way that certain TV-related features work in the United States. You can now clearly see ATSC sub-channels, for instance, and on systems with multiple tuners you can assign priorities to individual tuners on a station-by-station basis. The TV Pack supports up to four digital cable tuners (previously, you have to use an unsupported registry hack to get support for more than two tuners). The guide is also more user friendly, with high-definition content clearly identified in the listings and a new feature that allows you to create personalized guides with only your favorite channels. Recorded TV programs are stored using a new Windows TV (.wtv) file format, which replaces the old ms-dvr format. Press releases from Microsoft also mention that systems incorporating TV Pack will offer “the ability to share nonprotected digital cable content across Microsoft PlayReady technology-enabled PCs and portable media devices.”

Those additional features are in the TV Pack as a by-product of the main work, says Owen:

The sole purpose of the Media Center TV Pack is to enable specific broadcast TV types in Windows Vista for specific parts of Asia (ISDB) and Europe (DVB) which have been requested by the OEMs -- in a COA driven business, those guys matter a whole lot. That's the sum total of the goal for this particular release.

Now, there are also some other things in there (ClearQAM, ATSC Subchannels, etc.) mostly because the actual work is very much aligned, and in some cases technically required to enable those standards. If you do X you might as well go ahead and do Y because you are in there. Think of it this way: Every time I changed the timing belt on my car I also replaced the water pump because 90% of the preparation work to replace those parts was the same. So, from a scheduling and cost perspective you go ahead and do the work even if the 'ship vehicle' for those features to the mass market may be some other release.

Is the TV Pack going to be available to the public?

Not officially. It’s available only as a limited distribution release (LDR), in contrast to general distribution releases, which are made available on the Microsoft Download Centrer and via Windows Update. Although technically an LDR is not the same as an “OEM only” release, the distinction is pretty much academic outside the halls of Microsoft. But it's not available to the general public (at least not officially) and will mostly be delivered by large OEMs as part of new systems.

The TV Pack code was made available to beta testers and has since leaked to public download sites. A few minutes of searching at the Green Button or AVS Forums will turn up multiple download links and installation instructions. Just don’t expect any support.

Will owners of Media Center PCs in the United States be able to get the TV Pack from the OEM that originally built the system?

Probably not. Some smaller OEMs have suggested they might be able to make the update available to customers who order replacement installation media. At CEDIA EXPO 2008, most of the announcements of new systems incorporating the TV Pack code were from OEMs serving the high end of the market. High-volume PC makers, including Dell and HP, have not made any public statements about their plans to incorporate the TV Pack into new systems.

Next page: Dropped features, mistaken impressions -->

Topics: Windows, Hardware, Microsoft, Mobility, Operating Systems, Software

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88 comments
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  • Best argument for unbundling

    The inherent flaw in Microsoft's strategy is the bundled nature of Windows Media Center. It forces a one-size-fits-all strategy onto a market that has a wide range of needs and desires.

    "Slow and steady" DOES NOT WIN THE RACE, at least as far as consumer electronics are concerned. Models change and improve every year, and there only only a few top-end products that have more than a 12-18 month life cycle. Reliability is expected, but even there, the consumer is flexible. I have a 2002 $500 Pioneer DVD player that works perfectly, but I never use it because I also have a 2008 $75 DVD player that has many more features than the older model. So reliability was much less of a factor than functionality; the machine outlived its usefulness.

    The ugly truth is that the Wintel architecture is poorly suited for multimedia processing and display. As Microsoft continues to force-fit multimedia functionality onto an inappropriate platform, the problems will continue to drag the entire solution down.
    terry flores
    • Have you ever used Vista Media Center?

      Just curious.
      JoeMama_z
      • Obviously not.

        NT
        transposeIT
    • What truths?

      What exactly is so wrong with the "Wintel" platform? What is so wrong with it that for multi-media it is "poorly suited"?
      Got in technicals backing this up? Or are you blowing things out your ***?
      CrashPad
      • Here's my list

        I currently have two Windows XP Media Center boxes (1 desktop, 1 laptop), 1 Windows Vista with Vista Media Center, 1 Mac Pro, an HP MediaSmart Connect (WMC Extender), and a ATT Uverse DVR (WinCE based). I had 2 Linux-based MythTV PVR/Server systems, but they are in the basement waiting for some upgrade work at the moment.

        The comment about the Wintel platform is not controversial, the generic nature of the platform means has always created problems for multimedia. Lack of dedicated channels for digital streams, a mishmash of priority interrupt schemes, and "loose" bus/interconnect specs all contribute to making the architecture unsuitable for clean multimedia processing. That's why you don't see much of it in professional gear. Yes, there are people who do post-processing on lots of Wintel boxes, under controlled conditions, with lots of constraints and workarounds. But most consumer equipment and almost all professional equipment still use specialized architectures that are implemented in silicon to get the best multimedia experience.

        There are a couple of nice papers from the SMPTE on Wintel architectural issues and proposed new architectures with dedicated digital channel structures and automatic synchronization mechanisms. As the costs of custom silicon keeps dropping, more and more functions will be offloaded to compartmentalized DSP subsystems, and the PC itself will return to the role of "remote control" without being integrated into the signal path.
        terry flores
        • Good Lord.

          Ok. Maybe your right. I'm a bit of a media enthusiast but I have to bow down and pay homage to your expertise and acumen in the area.

          On the other hand, when it comes to the multitude of multi millions of Windows users, Windows far more then suffices to hand multi media processing. Most people don't have the needs or interest that an extremist (and in this case there is nothing wrong with being an extremist)has, and as such they are far more interested in versatility of a system as opposed to extreme performance. And of course thats where Windows shines. So until you come up with a box that is both a multi media masterpiece and capable of surfing the net. playing all the most popular PC games and doing everything else Windows can do, Windows is where its at.

          Its like they say; its not perfection but its the best there is.
          Cayble
          • Ummm, he did.

            He said that when the hardware has a dedicated DSP for multimedia then Windows would be a real platform for multimedia.

            By the way, I have yet to see a Widowss box that could do a good job of capturing his res video that is high action. The results always have dropped frames. (Or worse)
            No_Ax_to_Grind
  • RE: TV Pack headaches reveal Microsoft's Media Center dilemma

    Nice article.

    My only problem with this release is that first it correct some usability bugs that were not corrected in the Vista SP1 release (duplication of entry on the record planning, etc.) and it introduce a new file format which is not (yet) ported back on legacy Vista Media Center, and this is the worst point.

    MS need to assign a patch for normal Vista MCE in order to support WTV file format, this is a nightmare in multiple PC environnement otherwise.
    Fabeme
    • And costly, too?

      Media Center never can do everything,so I rely on other programs like ClickToDVD and Videowave. So will I now have to purchase new versions of these programs?

      Ouch!

      This new format is a big issue with me too.
      gdunger
  • My Opinion

    I think Microsoft should unbundled it and sell it for say an 39.99 standalone package with DVR capabilities (Free ad-supported version with no DVR capability). They can then release an upgraded version every year for that same price. It will cut 2 Vista SKU's: Premium and Ultimate. That will leave Home and Business like it should be in the first place.

    Incorporate HDI technology from HD DVD into DVD playback.

    They should also integrate MCE into the xBOX. I think MCE will fit nice inside of the xBox. The current MCE interface is an nice visual experience (It hammers dLinks and HP Quickplay software!).

    They also need to offer broad networking support built in. Networking support will help because then I will not have to put an shared shortcut folder into my Video folder so MCE can read my network files!

    I also feel that they need to do something about the navigation and content in the Internet TV section. They should streamline all content providers into numbered channels with an guide with in the Internet TV section. Therefore user will be able to jump to MSN Video or MTV Overdrive. It will form an great challenger to cable and sat. Navigation is the reason I do not use Comcast Digital Garbage on Demand.

    Microsoft need to start mending fences with Google and get Youtube integrated because I do not care what anyone say. Youtube may not be making money but its the most popular website on the internet for entertainment purposes.


    They need to make the music searchable inside the player in the top left corner because the experience with playing music makes me launch Windows Media Player every time I play an song. Everytime I want to look for an song I have to navigate out of what I'm playing to do so.

    Consolidate all menu's into tiles instead of an slider. Thats annoying. Rename Recorded TV: Windows DVR. Also rename Sports, Online Media, Internet TV into trademarked "WebTV". Some people will be familiar with that. I can picture welcome screen in tiles named:

    MUSIC (FM, CDs, Internet Radio, Media Files)

    PICTURES (Personal Pictures, Flicker, Photobucket, Myspace)

    WEBTV (Internet TV: Youtube, Hulu, Netflix, ETC)

    DIGITAL TV (OTA, SAT, CABLE, DVR)

    DVD

    LOCAL AND NETWORKED VIDEO'S

    SYSTEM SETTINGS (Configuring Media Center, the ability to change colors on the skins, networking options, adding tiles)
    1g2j
    • Media extender

      Not sure if this is what you mean, however Xbox 360 is a media extender. When connected to your Windows Media box will use the Media Centers GUI.
      Hope that helps.
      CrashPad
  • RE: TV Pack headaches reveal Microsoft's Media Center dilemma

    As a UK user I am particularly irritated by the limited distribution. One of the reasons given by Microsoft for the decision is that the new features require new hardware and thus the OEMs can make sure that the new hardware works properly. Of course the big new addition for UK users is the addition of interactive features on Freeview (MHEG), which doesn't require any new hardware. In fact MS put out a press release recently boasting that a Hauppauge TV card had been certified by Freeview when used with TV Pack. Of course the card certified has been out for some time and is in fact older than the Hauppauge card that I own!
    mog0
  • RE: TV Pack headaches reveal Microsoft's Media Center dilemma

    Most PC users do not care about Media Center. They probably never will.

    Microsoft is moving slowly. The competition is not standing still. iTunes and Front Row on Macs, TiVo, web-based applications and lots of free software Media applications make Media Center seem ho-hum at best. When I consider the Media Center's DRM content issues, particularly the CableCARD morass (including the lack of SDV support) and lack of satellite TV integration, I have to wonder if this will ever be more than a niche market for hobbyists, enthusiasts, and a few journalists.
    RickyF
    • What competition again? Dream on...

      Niche market my a$$. With several hundred PCs pre-installed with Media Center, where is the competition again? Time to wake up and see the real world.
      transposeIT
      • Agreed!!

        200 million is huge when compared to any other solution. You know for some great review of the real capability of WMCE go to windows supersite by Paul Thurott. Great review of the product.
        CrashPad
  • High performance?!?

    Who are you kidding?
    solomonrex
    • What is your question?

      This system works spectacularly well. What makes you think otherwise?
      Ed Bott
    • Do you even use Media Center? I highly doubt that.

      You're turning green with envy.
      transposeIT
  • RE: TV Pack headaches reveal Microsoft's Media Center dilemma

    From an organizational dynamics perspective, this speaks to an issue of organizational culture at Microsoft. The IT-centric release cycle nature of the company does not resonate with end-user consumers.

    Microsoft is one of the few remaining (large) hodgepodge technical corporations -- traversing the largest of large IT infrastructure technology (Windows server, SQL Server, SMS, Exchange, etc.) as well as consumer-focused software and hardware (Media Center, Zune, Xbox). This multi-facedness is fascinating, and can even work, but Media Center is in the cross-hairs between the two worlds: it's embedded into the Vista SKU, which means it's part consumer, part corporate IT. Vista is where the two worlds collide.

    So, you can see the tension here. It's clear that Apple has set the pace on what consumers should expect from consumer technology vendors -- regular updates to firmware/software to alleviate bugs and continually release new features to keep customers satisfied -- and loyal -- to the brand.

    I know this is not lost on Microsoft employees, but the culture is so dominant, decades old, and pervasive that I'm quite certain that the echo chamber drowns out the end-user voice in planning meetings in the halls of Redmond.

    I would argue that WMC needs to break out into a separate SKU (even if still subsidiary to Vista, and even if it's a $0 SKU) so that an independent management team can focus on the needs of the Media Center community and goals independent of Vista's success.

    The recent rumors of a closed-box Media Center set-top solution sounds quite encouraging, which means that this kind of thought has already been bandied and actioned on to a certain extent.

    Nobody should underestimate the intelligence and commitment of Microsoft to innovation and solving people's problems. But we should also not underestimate the complexities and politics of a huge company that has its fingers in so many pots that it's arguably impossible to optimize anything but the highest revenue products.

    Jon Deutsch
    jon [at] midiservices.com
    emailme1
  • OEMs Only? What about my custom computer?

    The last step for the computer to have full media capabilities is to simply replace my TV. I would get rid of my entire stereo system and just use my computer if this could only happen. But *sigh* they only want OEMs to have the hardware necessary for my computer to work as a TV. I can only get over the air signals but who wants that? No ATI cable cards, No TV packs ... why did I buy Vista Ultimate?
    Sema4