At first it might seem like a stretch to connect the future of Windows Media Center (WMC) with Windows Home Server (WHS), but hear us out. To understand this line of thought, first you have to look to the past failures of WMC and the trends in the PC marketplace. The original HTPC idea was that people wanted to connect a PC to their HDTV to access more content, but in reality only uber geeks are actually able to achieve the desired results. So Microsoft shifted gears and developed the Extender model which put a CE device at each TV with the real brains of the operation on a PC hidden away back in an office -- where PCs belong. This seemed like a great idea, that was until people stopped buying regular PCs and started buying laptops. The fact is that most people these days don't even own a regular desktop, instead opting for a more versatile portable. So what good is a version of Windows that can record TV, if you take the computer with you when your shows are on? Again, real enthusiasts don't care, they'll just buy both. But for the rest, this is where Windows Home Server comes in.
Windows Home Server has become one of the best laptop companion accessories available today. It makes it drop dead simple to backup all your computers -- both individual files and the entire system -- gives you an easy-to-use centralized repository for all your media and even remote access capabilities. The amazing thing is that the product is able to do all of this for a relatively low cost of about $500. We believe that the next version of WHS will also let you add tuner support and will not only let you record your shows and watch live TV on an Extender, but it will also let you watch TV on your Windows 7 laptop.
If you're already a WHS fan, at this point you are asking, "then why hasn't Microsoft done this already?" That answer is actually pretty obvious if you know that current version of WHS is built on Windows 2003 Server. It was released in the Fall of 2007, about five months before Windows Server 2008 and about a year after Windows Vista. Obviously there wasn't any point in including the older Media Center code in WHS, and with Server 2008 still off in the future, it couldn't use Vista's Media Center code either (Vista and Server 2008 share the same code base).
Since the release of WHS there have been a few updates that shows that Microsoft is already working in this direction. Most notably was Power Pack 2 which included a Media Center connector (pictured above) that made it really easy to access all the media on the WHS from within WMC -- this was possible before, but required some manual configuration including a few registry entries. The other trend out of Redmond that points us in this direction is the new BDA driver architecture. This allows hardware manufactures to develop their own hardware with less interaction from Microsoft and is kind of a standard like NDIS is for network adapters. Yet another indicator is the support of UPnP based tuners, as well as the "Shared TV" features of Windows 7. All of this combined with a little less DRM on CableCARD recordings and native satellite support starts to make this picture very clear to us.
Here's how it might work. You'll go into a big box store and buy a Windows Home Server with a few terabytes of storage for around $500 and bring it home. It won't include any tuners, but will have plenty of USB ports. Anyone who wants to watch TV on their PC will grab a USB tuner of their choice, which will (hopefully) include; ATSC, NTSC, CableCARD, DISH Network and DirecTV. Anyone who already has an Xbox 360 will be prompted during the WHS setup that they can connect the two devices together to watch TV. The 360 will work as an Extender for Media Center, much like it will on Windows 7 today -- this requires almost none of the complicated setup of a traditional HTPC. Using Live Mesh you'll be able to schedule recordings from anywhere and play them back on any Windows 7 computer on the network -- or even over the internet if you have your LiveID linked up. Who knows, you might even be able to watch the recordings on the rumored Zune HD by syncing it or streaming via Wifi. Now you should be wondering about Live TV on your laptop, because why not? No way to know for sure, but we believe the WHS will create a tuner pool of all the tuners you installed and expose these tuners to the network via UPnP. Then when you setup WMC on your laptop, it'll detect those tuners on the network and make them available for live TV or even local recordings. The WHS will manage the tuners to ensure there is a tuner available to record your favorite shows.
This product fits the laptop lifestyle and will be especially useful if you already own an Xbox 360, but the benefits don't stop there. Because WHS could only support tuners that use BDA drivers and the plug-in architecture of WHS is more limited than a PC the machine should be very stable. It should also use relatively low power compared to a regular PC. This combination could provide a very versatile and dependable DVR platform.
If any of this does come true, it'll be awhile. With Windows 7 due this fall, the earliest we'd expect any announcements from Microsoft about WHSv2 would be at CES, and then who knows how long before it's actually released. The other key question is cost. No matter how much the actual WHS sells for, if the tuners are too much it's all for naught. Currently CableCARD tuners for the PC retail at $300, which is way, way too much. If this price gets closer to $100, then we could see where this model could really compete head to head with the likes of TiVo in the DVR space. Sure there is still more up front cost, but the lack of service fees combined with the additional utility (backups, etc) and versatility, could make this a popular product.