Microsoft: Media Center not part of 'the future of entertainment'

A new blog post from Microsoft fills in details about how Media Center will fit in Windows 8, as an extra-cost option. And it's pretty clear that Media Center is not part of "the future of entertainment in Windows."
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

In a new post at the Building Windows 8 blog, Microsoft starts with this emphatic promise: “Windows 8 will deliver a world-class video and audio entertainment experience.”

The post concludes on a similarly upbeat note: “We are incredibly excited about the future of entertainment in Windows.”

In between are a few paragraphs guaranteed to disappoint old-school Windows media enthusiasts.

Microsoft already announced that Windows Media Center will be an extra-cost option in Windows and that it will require Windows 8 Pro. (Those details were part of a longer discussion about the Windows 8 editions, back in mid-April.)

If you’re running the base Windows 8 edition, you’ll need to upgrade the OS and install the Media Center Pack. Today’s post fills in a few more details:

Acquiring either the Windows 8 Media Center Pack or the Windows 8 Pro Pack gives you Media Center, including DVD playback (in Media Center, not in Media Player), broadcast TV recording and playback (DBV-T/S, ISDB-S/T, DMBH, and ATSC), and VOB file playback.

That parenthetical note about the absence of DVD playback in Media Player is not a mistake. DVD playback options will not be included with the new Windows Media Player, even if you install the Media Center Pack.

Windows Media Player will continue to be available in all editions, Microsoft says, but for DVD playback you'll need to use Media Center or third-party software: “For optical discs playback on new Windows 8 devices, we are going to rely on the many quality solutions on the market, which provide great experiences for both DVD and Blu-ray.” the post says. Translation: You’ll need to buy your own DVD software, or count on your OEM to supply it.

Mechanically, the Windows 8 Media Center Pack will be delivered using the feature formerly known as Windows Anytime Upgrade. Its new name: Add Features to Windows 8. That implies that the bits are included with the Windows 8 installation files and simply need to be unlocked.

There will, of course, be plenty of decoders included with Windows 8. The goal is to “cover all key playback scenarios for mainstream content such as YouTube video, Netflix video, Amazon audio/video, H.264 web browsing/streaming, Hulu video, MP4 video, AVCHD video from camcorders, Ultraviolet video, and the HTML5 video tag.”

Decoders for H.264, VC-1 (WMV), and MP4 video are included, as are audio codecs for MP3, WMA, AAC, PCM (Wave), and DD+. Metro style apps are free to add their own decoders, the post says, using FLAC, MKV, and OGG as examples.

Make no mistake about it: this decision is about the money. Specifically, it’s about the desire of OEM partners to want to keep costs down. In previous versions, technologies like the Dolby decoders that are part of Windows Media Center were included in premium editions. The decision to drop them completely from the base edition and make them a paid upgrade means those who want them will pay more, while OEMs will be able to cut a few bucks off the cost of each Windows license. Multiply that by millions of PCs and you see why big PC makers are content with this option.

Microsoft did not release pricing information, saying it "will be announced closer to the release date."

But there is a hint: "To give you some indication of Media Center Pack pricing, it will be in line with marginal costs." I think that means Microsoft will try to recoup the cost of the codecs but not treat them as a profit center. (But the wording is vague enough that I'll accept alternative interpretations; leave them in the Talkback section below.)

Update: In a comment on the Building Windows 8 blog post, Steven Sinofsky adds more details about the projected cost. In it, he says, "marginal is small, honest, and we just haven't determined the final prices yet ... we are aiming for single digit dollars but we don't control the truly marginal costs."

This move creates an opportunity for third-party software companies like CyberLink, which supply versions of their DVD playback software for their OEM partners to install on new PCs—with, of course, plenty of upsell opportunities.

As for “the future of entertainment in Windows,” it’s pretty clear what they’re not talking about. Microsoft disbanded the Windows Media Center development team years ago, with many of its members going to work on the Xbox and Zune projects.

Normally, these Building Windows 8 posts are written by a product manager or an engineer on the team responsible for delivering a feature. It's telling that this post was authored by Softies from the Windows Business Group and the Developer Experience team.

For Windows 8,  Microsoft seems to be saying, we'll keep Media Center's legacy alive. But I sure wouldn't bet on a similar option being there in Windows 9. And hey, maybe you should think about those new Metro apps instead. They're the real future.

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