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

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