A Bright Future for Windows Media Center? Thanks to Xbox?

Apr 3, 2012 by

One of the more recent juicy rumors around Windows Media Center and Windows 8 is that there may be a specific edition called “ProfessionalWMC.” Based on the rumors thus far regarding Windows 8, I wouldn’t put any hard cash down on this rumor coming to fruition. However, it does open the door to a potential strategy that may just make a whole lot of sense for Microsoft and the Media Center enthusiast community.  If we’re honest, it’s been quite some time since there’s been a win-win for Microsoft and the Media Center community.

 

Betting on a Better User Experience

The digerati, tech media and pundits will all gleefully admit that ‘nobody has figured out the home entertainment interface yet’ when discussing, for instance, the latest update to AppleTV, or GoogleTV.  Of course, they’re wrong.  Hovering under the radar for years is Windows Media Center, which absolutely nails the home entertainment graphical user interface (GUI).  And, no, not just for tech-geeks; women, men and children alike can grasp — and even enjoy — Media Center’s GUI.  It’s so good, in fact, that Microsoft is betting the farm on the new “Metro” UI design, which is derivative of Windows Media Center’s groundbreaking design introduced nearly a decade ago.

So why are we talking about GUIs?  Because if you’re a company that’s not Apple and you beat Apple in the GUI game for a potentially huge consumer market, you know you have something special.  And that something special needs to be packaged for various audiences to fulfill various needs and desires in the market.  To date, I’d argue that this marketing and packaging element has been severely lacking.

Perhaps a brief look at the history of Media Center marketing and packaging might teach us lessons around prior failures, and provide us with clues that could lead to a brighter future:

Marketing Media Center – Take 1

The first three versions of Media Center were marketed as distinct editions of Windows — Windows XP Media Center Edition.  This approach had the advantage of creating a unique edition (a.k.a. “SKU”) that Microsoft could market, sell and track uptake on.  The name of the OS in these cases indicated that this was specifically for Media Center PCs, and some OEMs even went and designed special encasements for this edition of Windows.  Unfortunately, the OEM-only license model severely limited power users from easily purchasing and getting support for this version of Windows.  The strategy was clearly that of Microsoft-to-OEM to ensure a solid user experience… not so different than Apple’s tight integration model it’s famous for today.

Marketing Media Center – Take 2

Starting with Windows Vista and extending through Windows 7, Microsoft’s marketing and segmentation strategy for Media Center has been largely laughable.  Included in the Windows Vista and 7 Home Premium and Ultimate editions, hopes were high that simply including Media Center “for free” in mainstream versions of the Operating System would somehow substantially increase the install base of this magnificent software. Of course, this couldn’t be further from reality. People don’t buy PC OS’s for Media Center functionality, so by combining the two, Microsoft actually diminished Media Center’s value by devaluing it as “free,” and hiding it in a huge PC Operating System that is primarily designed to, well, operate a PC.  Yes, this approach did get Media Center into people’s homes at a far more rapid rate in theory, but the fallout has been almost catastrophic: Steven Sinofsky himself essentially scolded the Media Center community by telling us that merely 6% of Windows installations who have Media Center have ever used it.  Talk about being set up for failure.

Marketing Media Center – Take 3

The conventional wisdom is that due to Sinofsky’s remarks like the above in conjunction with Microsoft’s huge push to get Media Center-like functionality in the newly Metro-fied Xbox 360 experience, Windows Media Center may not have such a bright future. Perhaps. However, the “ProfessionalWMC” SKU rumor can paint a more optimistic future.

With Media Center Edition possibly returning to the mix, this could lead to a targeted, two-tiered home entertainment marketing strategy for late 2012 and beyond:

Tier 1: Consumer media consumption.

Packaged within the Xbox ecosystem for the masses.  Fully set-top box driven, linked to Xbox Live services and its recurring revenue model, complete with a centrally controlled, curated content experience that Microsoft is increasingly investing in.  In two-to-three years, the next generation Xbox may finally live up to its “XBox” moniker where it’s a box that truly does “x” — where “x” is whatever you want it to do, ranging from music, video, movies and games.

Tier 2: Professional media consumption.

Packaged for A/V installers and professionals, as well as OEMs as “Windows 8 Professional – Media Center Edition”.  PC-driven, creating flexibility and customizations required to serve the needs of high-end home A/V systems, professional multimedia installations, and other applications that require specific experiences tailored for more discerning clientele.

While “Take 3” looks a lot like “Take 1” from the Media Center perspective, the big difference between then and now is the recent evolution of Xbox.  With Xbox media delivery services picking up steam in the mass market, it does become clear that Media Center is for more advanced configurers and installers, and for more discerning and demanding users.

Importantly, if Media Center is once again limited to a single edition of Windows 8, Microsoft will have the ability to consider bundling higher-end A/V services into the package and pass those costs along to the licensee. This kind of packaging and segmentation makes a lot of sense because the people who desire Media Center services such as Blu-ray playback and high-end audio decoding will be more than happy to pay extra for a no-compromise media-focused operating system.

This segmented, two-tiered future may very well not be on the horizon, but it should be.   As a Media Center enthusiast and optimist, I for one hope that this recent rumor is a hint of a future where Media Center becomes the high-end offering in Microsoft’s expansive, multi-pronged suite  of digital media management offerings.

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  • http://bjdraw.com Ben Drawbaugh

    Jon, how long have you been using Media Center? I suspect not that long as no one can be that blindly optimistic for that long. 

    Bottom line is that there is no amount of marketing in the world that can make any HTPC software mainstream. We live in an age where people are talking about PCs being passe and you’re talking about something that was never popular all of a sudden becoming popular because of a sku or marketing efforst. HTPCs are dead…

    Microsoft’s strategy for the living room is the Xbox and this does not include it as an Extender to Media Center. Apps from those like Verizon, HBO, Netflix etc on the Xbox are the strategy, the DVR is not. This does not please me one bit either, but there have been no signs what so ever from Microsoft that it plans to spend any R&D advancing the great product that no one but a few enthusiasts ever cared about (but did love).

  • Brian Reynolds

    Almost a year ago, Microsoft announced that they had sold 400 million copies of Windows 7.  That was 18 months after it was released.  Let’s assume that 600 million copies have been sold to date.

    According to Steven Sinofsky, only 6% (36 million) opened Media Center in the month of July 2011.  Of those, 25% (9 million) used it for more than 10 minutes per session.

    I really hope they see that even though the percentages look small, they’re talking about a LOT of people who use the product.

    I, for one, would be happy to pay extra for Media Center… especially if it means that they will continue development and fix some of the bugs.

  • Anonymous

    “Steven Sinofsky himself essentially scolded the Media Center community
    by telling us that merely 6% of Windows installations who have Media
    Center have ever used it.  Talk about being set up for failure.”

    Steven didn’t mention it to scold anyone. In fact, it was to show how many people use it. That ‘mere’ 6% is millions of people. You could say this is a glass half empty/glass half full paradigm; but I think the reason why Steven brought it up, to tell everyone it wasn’t dead, and would be in Windows 8 in some shape or form, is more half full than half empty.

    I think I otherwise agree with this article from beginning to end. At very least, WMC needs some bugfixes and features, most of which that should have been added from the beginning. And being a paid extra feature could fund this. But unfortunately, I think paying for it will only pay for its continued existence, than any added development. Mpeg-2 and Dolby decoding aren’t free, nor is the guide data.

  • http://jondeutsch.com Jon Deutsch

     Hi Ben,

    I’ve been using Media Center since it started supporting CableCard back in the Vista days.  I respectfully disagree about your belief in the power of Marketing.  I’ll show you a few political candidates that didn’t have a prayer in the world until they got a good brand and marketing campaign defined.

    But more specifically, I have to say that I’m not advocating that Media Center become mainstream.  I’m advocating it continue to support the professional class.  Think of it as “enterprise software” in a way… not targeted toward the consumer — rather, the professional installer and A/V needs.

    Lastly, I have found that where there was knowledge of Media Center, there was surprising levels of interest in the product.  What cut it at the knees was the complexity around setting it up.  This is why Xbox makes the most sense for the general consumer. 

    Microsoft could always use WMC as a test bed for apps and features that get flowed into Xbox.  This wouldn’t be the first time a big company used a niche product line to test out ideas for future mass market adoption. 

    It’s not the Apple way, but it doesn’t need to be.  Microsoft has its own strengths.

  • http://bjdraw.com Ben Drawbaugh

    From a marketing perspective, Microsoft did exactly what you are asking them to do, with Windows 7. They created the Integrators Alliance (including software tools and documentation), offered the AEP to high end OEMs, created a special team just to support professional installers called the Racing Team, bought a big booth at CEDIA, held a swanky press conference at CEDIA with notable newsworthy announcements, even included Media Center features prominently in almost every single Windows 7 TV advertisement that played non-stop on TV at launch. I’m not sure what more you think anyone could do to market Media Center any more than they did.

    Microsoft spent tons of money developing Windows 7 Media Center including adding support for TV standards around the world and testing it in multiple countries. They created partnerships with every TV provider you can think of. Integrated it with their MediaRoom products. The execs at the top level used it in their own high end whole home entertainment systems — I’m talking execs that matter here too, not ones without the ability to steer the direction of the company. They did more than anyone else has ever done, or will probably ever do, and although we all love the product, we have to admit that it doesn’t make business sense and breaking it into it’s own sku isn’t going to change that.

    Now, all that being said, I don’t believe that everything done at work has to make business sense and perhaps one day in the near future the money will be flowing in Redmond again and the powers that be can direct money into their hobbies. If Windows 8 is hit on Tablets, Windows phone 7 takes off and the profits come back, then who knows what Microsoft will find the resources to do.

  • John McGinley

    Come on Microsoft, let’s actually hear about changes and improvements to media center and not whether or not it will be in Windows 8. I haven’t seen or read anything that makes me want to upgrade my dedicated mediacenter pcs. A seperate sku of Windows 8 with a media center that looks and functions the same as WMC 7 is just not going to cut it. The consumer preview version seems to be nothing more than WMC7 with minor changes. How much can they possibly do to it between now and launch, assuming they have any resources dedicated at all?

    This seems to be more of cost cutting move than an invovation move. It also makes it easier to kill in the long run as it would no longer be a part of the commonly used OS package.

    Until they do something dramatic, there’s nothing that MS has done in the last 3 years that earns any benefit of doubt.

  • http://jondeutsch.com Jon Deutsch

    Great points.  I wasn’t aware of the CEDIA /Racing Team/etc. push.  That’s really impressive, but I wonder from a marketing perspective why the heck they did that if there’s no revenue tied to that strategy?  I mean, it can’t be for the 2000+ Win7 licenses they’d sell to that segment. And there are no monthly fees for the guide, and it’s not like the Internet TV-based ads are going to be a cash cow.  Any insights as to how they saw themselves making money with that push?  Perhaps some indirect revenue streams I’m unaware of?

    From my perspective, marketing isn’t just promotion. It’s a revenue and profit strategy as well. Microsoft developed an amazing piece of software, but have not matched it up with a revenue model (yet?) that would drive internal investment and priorities.  Even indirect revenue.  While not explicit in my post (in an effort to keep it brief), but mentioned on the podcast, is the idea of using WMC as the proving ground for new tools and technologies for future Xbox mainstream implementation. 

    Ultimately, my post was intentionally overtly optimistic in an attempt to take a rumor and to re-frame it as a way to talk about a path forward for my beloved WMC.  After all, predictions of WMC’s demise have been more numerous than feature updates over the past four years!

  • Jon Willoughby

    As much as I hate to be a pessimist, I have to agree with Ben. Convenience is king. People will put up with an inferior product with inferior features (*cough Android*) as long as it’s convenient. That’s just the way it is. I think the 9 million Windows users is the most we can ever hope to get.

  • Vincent Just

    As a tech wannabe who as only nibbled around the edges of being an enthusiast, I can say from my experience that WMC is a great thing.  I have used WMC since XP when PC manufacturers such as Sony built in tuner cards to their desktops.  But now a days, the cable cos have really hamstrung the technology with requiring special cablecards.  If embedded WMC could make it onto TVs as opposed to Android based TVs then Media Center will live on.  Additionally if Win8 tablets reach any kind of success then a whole new market opens up for streaming TV to tablets via WMC. 

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