Thoughts on Windows Media Center

I just finished signing up for the Media Center "Fiji" beta program discussed by Mary Jo Foley in a recent blog post. Media Center is the way I watch television these days.

I just finished signing up for the Media Center "Fiji" beta program discussed by Mary Jo Foley in a recent blog post. Media Center is the way I watch television these days. It provides guide and DVR functionality for my TV watching, turns my TV into a categorized jukebox for all my music, and makes available all the digital photos and videos I have ever created (including a low-tech movie I did on a shoestring with a bunch of Limerick lads and lasses...which is real trip to watch several years later). It is also a highly programmable and customizable environment. I can add new hard drives if I want, and I can write software plug-ins to add new functionality.

Media center has been the proving ground for the creation of software-mediated TV experiences within Microsoft, and that experience should be allowed to percolate as widely as possible within the company.

What I really want, however, is one of the new CableCARD Media Center systems. Right now, I am rather low-tech from a TV standpoint. I don't have premium channels such as HBO, and I can't access things like Pay Per View or "On Demand" content because I don't have a Digital Set-Top Box (STB), a result of past annoyance at the ever-creeping charges levied by my cable company.

New CableCARD technology aims to change that. An outgrowth of telecommunications regulations issued by the FCC in 1996, they aim to ensure consumers have a wider variety of third party systems through which to consume cable signals, much as a wide variety of telephones exist that plug into standard phone jacks. With CableCARD technology, Media Center PCs become viable alternatives to the STBs offered by cable companies in the fullest sense of the word. All content available to broadcaster-supplied STBs can be duplicated on a PC.

There are wrinkles, of course. Though digital music receives most of the attention from a DRM standpoint, digital television is probably the most widespread DRM-protected delivery system in existence. This means that you can't use a CableCARD on just any kind of system. That system must be a Cablelabs-certified "OpenCable Unidirectional Receiver" (OCUR) system. Identified by a special flag in the motherboard BIOS, the certification is supposed to ensure that the system meets certain basic data integrity requirements, as well as follows rules specified by broadcasters and content owners. I'm sure that will raise the hackles of the DRM-phobic, but unless all of you forego any form of "premium" television (no HBO, no PPV, certainly no satellite signals) I suggest you spend a few hours in the enclosed space of your choice contemplating the inconsistency of that stance.

This means that home-rolled Media Center PCs won't be possible if you want to plug into premium content on cable networks. On the other hand, a Cablelabs-certified Media Center system still gives me a heck of a lot more flexibility compared to the closed STB systems that are common in the cable world. CableCARD-supporting Media Center systems thus help to pry open the home television environment in interesting new ways.

That is, in my opinion, a Good Thing™.