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.
With 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
The 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 -->