For the last few years the top two competitors in the home theater PC software marketplace have been Windows Media Center and SageTV. Windows Media Center comes with every Windows 7 (and Vista) computer with Home Premium or higher installed on it. Sage TV was a program that had to be purchased separately. It did many of the same things that Windows Media Center does: live and recorded television, music, video and movie library, and more. Many viewed Sage TV as more advanced than Windows Media Center, but also more complicated to use, and not nearly as attractive in its visuals.
As of this past weekend though, there is really only one remaining HTPC software option as Google purchased SageTV and then promptly removed the store from their website. The first assumption that most are making, as it’s the most logical, is that Google plans to use Sage TV’s technology to improve its Google TV hardware and software. It makes the most sense. Google TV’s potential has always been the ability to give you access to almost all of the content you’re interested in. The one problem being that it couldn’t give you true access to the content you watch the most: television. With this acquisition Google may have just what it needs to incorporate TV tuners into its future Google TV boxes which would offer users a complete end-to-end experience. There is still another problem with that though. While SageTV supports television tuners, it has never natively supported CableCARD. Without CableCARD SageTV users only had one option for getting premium HD content and that was through expensive analog capture devices like the Hauppauge HD PVR. Not only is the HD PVR expensive, about $200 per tuner, it also requires IR blasters to change channels on a separate cable box. CableCARD tuners, such as Ceton’s InfiniTV 4, and SiliconDust’s HDHomeRun Prime, have the ability to capture any channel your cable provider offers (ESPN, HBO, etc…) for far less money per tuner.
If Google doesn’t come up with a way to work CableCARD into its future then the television recording capabilities of SageTV’s technology may not be worthwhile. One interesting thing to note is that SageTV became a licensee of Microsoft’s PlayReady DRM over a year ago. PlayReady is the DRM that is used to handle the CableCARD encryption within Windows Media Center. CableLabs requires any software that wishes to use CableCARD technology to have an encryption provider to handle protected content. While PlayReady isn’t the only option available, it may be the easiest to use as Microsoft is already using it, and Google most likely now has the license to use it also.
So what does this mean for Windows Media Center users? Honestly, I think it only has positive potential outcomes for Media Center users. While Media Center fans have been clamoring that it may not be included in the next version of Windows (a claim/fear that is based on almost no evidence at all) we now know one thing for certain: Windows Media Center is alive and well, SageTV is dead.
Even if Google doesn’t completely kill off SageTV, and even more so if they integrate it really well into future Google TV releases, it could still be good news for Windows Media Center users. If the past is any indication, Microsoft tends to do a better job improving its products when it has real competition. One need only look at Windows Mobile, and even Windows itself for evidence. If Google really can put together a device that is capable of watching and recording live television, giving full access to your own media library, a large selection of streaming internet video, and a fantastic search UI over top of all of it then Microsoft will be forced to innovate with Windows Media Center, or claim yet another loss to the search engine giant.
In the end only time will tell what Google has planned for the acquisition. We’ll be patiently waiting to see what it has up its sleeves.