HTPC Opinion Windows Media Center

Xbox One: The Xbox that Doesn’t Do Media Center

Xbox One: The Xbox that Doesn't Do Media CenterSo as to not bury the lede, the unsurprising truth is, in fact, true: The Xbox One will not be a “native Media Center Extender.”   In an interview with IGN, Microsoft Corporate Vice President Marc Whitten said “Xbox One isn’t a native Media Center Extender. We’ll continue to work to enable more ways for everyone to get the television they want over the life of the program.”

We can quibble over his choice of the term “native” in his answer (if for nothing else to give optimists like myself a thread of hope that is about the width of a strand of DNA), but the fact of the matter is that Microsoft has for quite some time made it abundantly clear — through its disbanding the Media Center team, the lack of any new ecosystem development, the lack of support for legacy extenders in Windows 8, and now the lack of support in Xbox One — that Windows Media Center is the old Family Room OS, and that Xbox is the new Family Room OS.

And why should Microsoft continue to keep Media Center on anything more than life support?  This is the whole-home media OS that they invented a decade ago that is still slicker than anything Apple has every come up with for the home, and actually works really well with existing technology (i.e., Cable TV).   For most companies, the axiom is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  In Microsoft management circles, this axiom seems to have been distorted into “if it ain’t broke, wait until we take a crack at it.”

It’s all quite depressing for we, the Windows Media Center owners and advocates.  We, the tiny speck of an 8 million user base for Microsoft, are only advocates because the darned thing works and works well — and works better than any alternative on the planet.  We can only collectively imagine how useful it would be if Microsoft had continued to invest in it by creating a real ecosystem, app store, and revenue model to support its growth.  We dream of an alternate reality where Windows Media Center is the iPhone of the Home — where everything is effortless, connected, and automated so that anyone in the family can interact with their media anyway they like and virtually anywhere they like.  With the myriad of hacks and special plug-ins I’ve invested in over the years, my current Media Center setup is still highly capable, highly useful and would be downright depressing to give up.  Nothing else on the market even comes close.

Every day, I use my Media Center system to do everything I need my whole-home media management system to do for me.  And I smile just a little bit each time I use it because it makes almost every interaction so darned lovely and enjoyable.  But recently, I’ve also been feeling a bit of dread every time I smile, because I know deep down that the sand in the hourglass will eventually complete its journey to the bottom bulb, leaving us with an empty space that must be filled in with an alternative.  And, quite unfortunately, because the Xbox One does not support DVR or traditional live TV services (though, to be fair, it will support some live content from specific cable providers, but I’d argue that’s already too complex a story for a mass-consumer set-top device), Microsoft has left a gap about the size of the Cable TV industry in its product portfolio, leaving us nowhere to go.

Microsoft has developed quite a talent of late in squashing useful innovations that solve real problems real well, yet needed an extra push in setup/installation ease  (Media Center, Home Server), and doubling-down on offerings that either copy Apple’s over-simplified model unsuccessfully (Zune, Surface RT) or over-innovate and offer us things that may very well define the future (Windows Metro, Windows Phone, Kinect, Xbox One), but they don’t do such a great job providing real competitive value right now.

While pinning the future of the digital family room on Xbox makes a lot of business and practical sense, the lack of DVR and simple, uncompromising live TV support renders the Xbox One as a gaming machine and a device designed to enable the future of streaming TV. And while the future of TV content will surely be cloud-based streaming, the current reality and short to mid-term future will still be a world of DVRs and traditional cable TV program guides.

Microsoft has become a company that is addicted to over-thinking, over-future-proofing, and over-designing solutions in a bid to try to be relevant and exciting again in consumer technology.  It’s hard to watch.  Microsoft has so much talent in their ranks, but with such an inferiority complex at the management level, they are hindered in their ability to actually achieve what they desire — market success and consumer respect.

The Xbox One is a triumphant technology achievement, but I fear it’s too clever by half, and by short-circuiting any ability for Media Center compatibility or at least offering feature parity demonstrates that Microsoft is lacking a cohesive product road map for their own customers.  Perhaps the next generation of leadership for Microsoft will be able to step back, survey the landscape, and begin sorting all of this out in a way that suggests that the customer experience is actually more important that the ten-year technology strategy.