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TV Pack headaches reveal Microsoft's Media Center dilemma

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?

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, 6.1.1000.18273
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

 

TV Pack supports up to four digital tuners

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 -->

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Some people think that the decision to make the TV Pack an LDR was a last-minute decision, based on beta tests. Is that true?

My sources told me long ago, before the beta program began, that this product was not going to be widely available. In a recent e-mail exchange, Charlie Owen confirmed that the Media Center team decided to make this an LDR release early on:

There were a number of reasons why it was designated LDR. Resources are always a factor for every release, so that certainly played a part. As for English United States customers -- there really isn't a whole lot of “good stuff” in there. ClearQAM and ATSC are a teeny, tiny part of the overall market and so the risk outweighs the benefit there.

We fully understood we would see this sort of outcry. It's not without precedent -- Media Center was technically 'OEM Only' until Windows Vista -- just weren't as many people to provide feedback. We knew we were going to get this sort of feedback and it was very much a part of the LDR vs. GDR discussion.

When I pressed Charlie on this subject he pushed back and said “absolutely it was the right decision to make it LDR.” He did acknowledge that he “absolutely agrees the team could have done a better job of proactively helping the community understand the thinking behind the decision.”

Why was H.264 support dropped from the final release? The Zune and Xbox both have it, and it's essential for watching HD from the BBC and other European sources.

H.264 support was in some beta releases but was dropped before the final release. One e-mail that was reportedly sent to beta testers called this “an especially complex feature due to all the complexities involved” and said it was cut so that the product could be shipped “in the timeframe committed to OEMs.”

Without confirming any details, Charlie told me, “We realize how important this is to end users -- many people on the Media Center team (including yours truly) want this in the product. Sometimes you must make tough decisions -- this was the right call, even though painful for a segment of our customers.”

What happened to DirecTV support?

I get a terse “no comment” every time I raise this subject with anyone who works at Microsoft. Some knowledgeable outside sources suggest that the feature was cut long ago when it became obvious that H.264 support wasn’t going to make it into the TV Pack. I never heard from any beta testers who ever received hardware from DirecTV.

Next page: A brief history of the TV Pack

The communication problems around this project started early on. A series of leaks resulted in serious misunderstandings over what the project was supposed to be, and Microsoft responded by trying to be more secretive rather than formally clearing up the confusion. When the code finally reached beta testers early this year, the gap between expectations and reality was especially large. As testing went on, the gap grew larger, leading to pronouncements like the one from Media Center MVP Chris Lanier, who called the beta test a “mess” and predicted it will “go down in history as one of the worst coordinated projects to come out of Microsoft in a long time.”

Wasn’t Fiji at one time supposed to be a major update to Windows?

No, but it’s understandable that that mistaken impression persists.

The Fiji codename first leaked to the public more than two years ago, courtesy of a March 15, 2006 post by Mary Jo Foley at Microsoft Watch. At that time, it was described as “the next version of Windows client – the one we've been calling Vista R2 until now.” An April 11, 2006 follow-up post repeated that description and referred to a “target delivery date” of 2008. It turns out that Mary Jo’s tipsters were giving her bum information or were just confused. (She finally sorted out all the details in a ZDNet post almost exactly a year later, on March 15, 2007.)

The Fiji codename always referred to the next version of Windows Media Center, and in March 2006 the Media Center team was in “heads down” mode working on the version that shipped in Windows Vista. (I previewed Vista Media Center around that time using the beta 2 release and noted that it was a “step in the right direction” but was far from finished.) At that time, no actual features had been defined for the next release.

OK, but wasn’t this supposed to be a major update to Windows Media Center?

I forwarded that question to Microsoft’s Charlie Owen, who responds: “People tend to only remember the last release. Our Windows Vista version was a major release, so folks naturally tend to believe the next version was going to be similar. The history of Windows Media Center doesn't fit that model.”

I went through the Media Center version history to put each release in perspective and asked Charlie to help me characterize each release in terms of size and scope (Small, Medium, Large). Here’s the list I came up with:

  • October 2002: Windows XP Media Center Edition 2002 (Large) Code name: Freestyle
    The earliest Media Center interface
    This was the debut release of Windows Media Center. It was sold only through large OEMs and supported a single analog TV tuner. The image at right is from the early-2002 beta release, as chronicled in Paul Thurrott's 2002 preview, and is reprinted with permission. (Paul reviewed the final release in October 2002.)
  • November 2003: Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 (Medium) Code name: Harmony This was another release available only for large OEM computer makers. It was built on the Windows XP Professional SP1 code base, and its Media Center features added performance improvements, usability fixes, an improved TV guide, and support for widescreen displays (but not HDTV). It also introduced the extensibility architecture and Software Development Kit that allows third-party developers to develop plug-ins for Media Center
  • November 2004: Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 (Medium) Code name: Symphony This was the first Media Center release that was available through the OEM System Builder channel (but still not in retail packages). One noteworthy change was support for the first generation of Media Center extenders. It also supported recording and playback of over-the-air HDTV through a single ATSC digital tuner. The HD signal could not be streamed to an extender, however.
  • October 2005: Update Rollup 2 for Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 (Small) Code name: Emerald If you called this release a patch, you wouldn’t be too far off. It consisted mostly of “stability and quality improvements” along with support for the Xbox 360 as an extender. This release, available to any MCE 2005 owner as a 29MB download, increased the number of allowed ATSC tuners to two and also introduced a Zoom mode for use on widescreen displays.
  • January 2007: Windows Vista Home Premium and Ultimate (Large) Code name: Diamond
    This is the version of Media Center that appears in Windows Vista. It included a host of major architectural changes and a completely overhauled user interface. It also introduced support for CableCARD tuners and a new generation of HD-compatible extenders. (To see this version in operation, see my feature from earlier this year, Windows Media Center meets cable TV in HD.)
  • September 2008: Windows Media Center TV Pack (Medium) Code name: Fiji Like Emerald, this could be considered a patch (the x86 version is a mere 43MB in size). Officially dubbed the Media Center TV Pack 2008, its main purpose was to enable support for non-U.S. broadcasting standards. As part of the development work, however, some fundamental changes were introduced to the platform, including a new file format (Windows TV, .wtv file name extension) and significant usability enhancements to the process of setting up and using TV tuners.

As Charlie notes, “What became the Media Center TV Pack was always in the vein of a Small or Medium update.”

What isn’t on this chart, of course, is any mention of Windows 7. Features introduced in the TV Pack will certainly be rolled into Windows 7, and it’s almost certain that H.264 support will appear there as well. But Microsoft has been extremely tight-lipped about any other changes planned for the next release of Media Center. If I had to guess, I would expect enough surprises to earn the Medium label.

Will that be enough to win back those enthusiasts, at least temporarily? If those screaming loudest for TV Pack features are able to get their hands on a solid, stable Windows 7 beta, they just might forget all about the disappointments of the past few months. And if Windows 7 really does arrive in mid-2009 as rumored, a heaping helping of new Media Center features might be enough to repair relations -- at least for a little while.