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The Future of Windows Media Center

June 1, 2009

A number of blog posts from Ian Dixon, Chris Lanier and Ben Drawbaugh over the past week or so have cause me to rethink where I think the Windows Media Center platform is headed. In three words: away from extenders. Not just stand alone Media Center Extenders, but Xbox 360 Media Center Extenders as well. I think they will be replaced by dedicated PCs running some version of Windows that is designed to function more like a consumer electronics device that a conventional PC.

Here are the pieces of evidence and arguments that have led me to this conclusion (albeit one I’m not that certain of):

  • HP has discontinued their media center extenders and MediaSmart TVs. Linksys extenders have also been discontinued.
  • When Netflix Watch Instantly functionality was added to the Xbox 360 last Fall, and to Media Center recently, there was no support for Media Center Extenders.
  • The Zune Marketplace will be available on the Xbox 360, but not Media Center.
  • Chris Lanier writes:

    More so, I don’t see Microsoft investing the time to use Media Center as the core for the home.  Media Center isn’t dying, it isn’t coming out of Windows, but I continue to think the focus will shift.  Microsoft will still work with partners on Extenders (I’ve been assured of this), but they will still release products and features that forget these Extender’s even existed.  They will connect your life, but they will not connect your life using Media Center.

  • Reports I read previously concerning Windows 7 and TV shows recorded with OCUR tuners suggest that other PCs in a Windows 7 Homegroup will be able to play DRM laden TV shows recorded on a Media Center PC (something that is impossible now).
  • However, even Chris Lanier agrees with Ben Drawbaugh that Media Center is likely to be integrated into Windows Home Server relatively soon.
  • Ian Dixon points out that we will soon be seeing a retail PC designed as a set top box in the form of the  Mediaconnect TV box.

In my mind all of these developments point toward the extender model of multiroom Media Center use being replaced with set top PCs in each room that do the work of Media Center Extenders.

Why? Architecturally, the extender model has always been something of a kludge, with extenders running as different users users on the Media Center PC when operating. This has led to many difficulties with extenders like each having its own library of music, the inability to fast forward or rewind audio content on extenders, and many add-ins not running on extenders.

The advantage of the extender model was that (i) you only needed one PC and each extender was relatively inexpensive, and (ii) key data and infrastructure was all in one place (like recordings and the schedule of TV shows to record). These advantages are what have made Media Center the best multi-room solution for TV available at any price.

If there really are cheap CE-style (i.e. really cheap, simple and reliable) PCs coming then this will negate rationale (i) for the extender model. With the coming of Homegroup in Windows 7, I suspect we see the beginning of the negation of advantage (ii) of the extender model if these advantages of centralization can be duplicated using Homegroup in some way.

Using a set top box instead of an extender means that Microsoft will no longer have to dedicate resources to making the extender kludge work and can instead devote those resources to coordinating the media related activities of multiple PCs on a network. A pursuit that may well be useful in contexts beyond whole-home AV.

I don’t think extenders will disappear any time soon, but I think the evolution of hardware technology and the advances in Window 7 point toward their eventual replacement by a consumer electronics-style set top box PC that serves the same purpose.



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