With the Custom Electronic Design & Installation show in Atlanta only a month away, we thought it'd be fun to try and predict the future by laying out our expectations for Windows Media Center. The way we see it, CEDIA is the perfect launching pad for Windows 7 Media Center. For starters it is just over a month before the official release of the OS, but more so because Microsoft has used the venue in the past to announce new Media Center features. We really believe that this is going to be the year that Redmond brings everything together, so if you're the type who doesn't think it'll ever happen, then click through to find out why we think you're wrong.
Integrating it all together
Before we get into the specifics, lets address the lack of integration in products out of Redmond, and the reasons we believe that is changing. The most obvious is the corporate restructuring that has occurred which has created the new Microsoft TV, Video & Music Business unit (TVM). This new group formed in January includes the teams that work on Media Center and Zune (among others). This is a good step in the right direction to making the Zune and Media Center work hand in hand, but the other clue is based on a leak. We just love it when Amazon leaks release dates, especially because more often then not, the leaked information is true. This time Amazon clued us in to the Zune HD release date of September 8th. On top of the Amazon leak is the fact that the Zune truck contest also ends on September 8th. This date means something to us because this is the first day of CEDIA -- show floor opens on the 9th. Now CEDIA isn't exactly a consumer electronics show, so why would Microsoft release such a consumer centric device at a non-consumer show? We believe it is the same reason why the Zune HD and the new Zune video store was announced at or around E3; because it is going to be directly integrated with Microsoft's other announcements at the show. Of course we don't know exactly what will be integrated, but we'll share our best guess with you below.
PlayReady is the glue that will hold it all together
We hate DRM as much as anyone, but in the complicated world of video rights, DRM is here to stay. So we're at least happy when we see it get more consumer friendly -- yeah that's right, we said it -- and Microsoft's latest DRM, PlayReady, is just that. The single greatest advantage of PlayReady over any other DRM out of Redmond is fact that it finally supports domains. This effectively means it works more like Apple's FairPlay in the way that it allows us to enjoy protected content on multiple devices (that are in the same domain). But that isn't the only reason why we like it, the other big reason is that it seems to be supported by a vast array of devices. This is much different from the past when even two Microsoft technologies like Zune and Media Center used different DRM, which put up walls between them. We don't have a comprehensive list of devices that support PlayReady but just to name a few; Windows 7 Media Center (including CableCARD and DISH Network tuners), Zune HD, Silverlight, Blu-ray's Managed Copy and many DLNA Certified Media Streamers -- and we're told your device can too for about $15k. Now before you get too excited, don't forget that just because it is technically possible for you to play a PlayReady DRM'd CableCARD recording on another computer in your domain, doesn't mean that CableLabs will let you. Ultimately all of these PlayReady features can be enabled or disabled by the content owners and we know all too well how they can be.
New Digital Cable Tuners
This brings us to our first prediction, we believe AMD will announce a replacement for its existing ATI Digital Cable Tuner -- this is above and beyond the fact that we expect a firmware upgrade for the existing tuner. Both the existing and the yet to be announced tuner will now use PlayReady DRM, will support Tuning Adapters to make them SDV compatible, and will not require DRM on all recordings like they do now. The firmware to reduce the DRM on the current tuners was actually announced at CEDIA last year and never materialized, but we've actually seen tuners with the new firmware that have an "SDV" tab -- of course the timing of the release is a total guess based on the timing of CEDIA and the release of Windows 7.
As for the totally new hardware, we believe the big difference will be that the new tuner will take advantage of M-Cards and allow you to record more than one HD show at a time -- and hopefully not cost $300. The evidence that supports this is the fact that the current tuners have been on clearance, including the most telling indicator, Dell.com selling the internal variety for $209. This is particularly interesting because Dell never offered the internal ones on its site until recently. So we take that fact, and the previous announcement of the Ceton multi-stream OCUR, and combine it with an email from AMD checking to make sure we'd be at CEDIA, and we are left with a great feeling that new hardware is on the way. We do not expect much new from Ceton at this show though, as an email from its PR department warned us that the CableLabs certification process might prevent the new tuner from being released this year.
DISH Network Tuner
This prediction is really all but a fact as we have talked to a few beta testers who rave about it. Of course no one knows if Microsoft plans to fully develop and test a tuner with DISH Network only to cancel it at the last minute, but we believe that CEDIA is the perfect place for DISH Network and Microsoft to announce the partnership and the tuner. We're told that unlike CableCARD tuners, VOD and PPV will be available in Media Center and will work as expected. Unfortunately everything the testers recorded was protected by PlayReady DRM and didn't seem to support domains. All the testers have had good things to say about the new HD tuner, and were actually a little disgruntled when DISH asked that the tuners be returned after the beta and wouldn't tell them when the new hardware would be available for purchase, leaving the testers without any HDTV. The tuners were VIP 211 HD STBs loaded with special firmware. We're told that they will only be available directly from DISH and that you won't be able update the firmware on your existing box. You should be able to use four of these tuners at a time if you have enough USB ports. It might also be possible to plug them all into the same network connection on the Media Center, but we weren't able to find any testers who actually tried it. These boxes sell for about $200 each, so it won't be an inexpensive route -- assuming you don't cash in on a promotion -- but the good news is that all the testers we spoke with told us that the tuners worked fine with a DIY HTPC.
The Zune HD
The Amazon leak and the truck contest are the best evidence we have that the Zune HD will be launched at CEDIA, but the fact that it is being launched here is what makes us believe it will be integrated with Media Center. We've heard rumors that you'll be able to stream content from your Media Center via Wifi, but we also believe that syncing content will be easier than ever -- and we even expect content with AC3 audio to work now. The big guess on our part here is that we believe that the Zune HD will be able to function as a Media Center remote -- it just makes perfect sense. We do NOT believe that the Zune will work like an extender or that you'll be able to watch Live TV, but are hopeful that the Zune video store will come to Media Center. This is a really big if, and one we really don't expect to happen, but at the same time haven't ruled it out. We just don't see how Apple could be permitted by the content owners to bring premium content to the Mac, and not allow Microsoft to do it at the same time.
WebGuide and Silverlight
If you haven't tried WebGuide on Windows Vista Media Center, you're missing out. It is such a cool plug-in that Microsoft actually assimilated the developer and he is now a part of the team that develops Media Center. The very same developer, Doug Berrett, actually demoed a Live Mesh version of WebGuide back in November of 2008 at PDC and we've been waiting for it ever since. It makes sense to us that with the release of Windows 7 just around the corner, CEDIA is the perfect time for Microsoft to unveil the ability to schedule recordings remotely via a web browser. The old version of WebGuide could do more than just schedule recordings though, it could stream recordings too, and we think that the latest version of Silverlight might be ready to handle the rest. We'll be honest though, this is just total wishful thinking on our part, and in the back of our mind we feel that the content owners might have a problem with this. Not a big deal though as we already know you can access your Media Center recordings over the internet from another Windows 7 PC by using Windows Media Player, but it would be nice to access our shows from any computer with a SilverLight plug-in instead.
Hauppauge HD PVR driver
Now for the off-the-wall predictions
We'll be honest, this is just for fun. These are some off-the-wall ideas we came up with, they are actually based on facts but we'll admit we're taking some really big leaps here.
The first is a new Extender platform to replace the current one. The big difference here is the new 3rd party extenders will offer the same experience as the Xbox 360 does now, but also add support for Silverlight and Flash. Now we're not so hopeful that we think new hardware could actually be announced, but it is possible that a new platform would be revealed with actual device announcements coming next year.
We know for a fact that the DirecTV tuner (HDPC-20) was basically done, but then the project was mysteriously "suspended." We also know how much DirecTV likes to spin things and it's really anyone's guess to which way things were spun. A pessimist will tell you that "suspend" is just a nice word for canceled, while an optimist will tell you that it is actually suspended, and will eventually be released. One thing is for sure, we weren't able to track down a single person who said they believed it was in testing or that Microsoft had any plans to test it in the next year. The real mystery is DirecTV's motivation to kill this thing since people in the know claim it worked great. So while we wouldn't be totally surprised to learn that DirecTV was planning on announcing it at the same time as the DISH tuner all along -- and just wanted it to be a surprise -- we're not holding our breath.
We don't expect the US to have all the fun, so here's a crazy prediction for the UK. Currently recording premium HD content on the other side of the Atlantic isn't really an option. There is one Sky TV hack that works, but isn't for the faint of heart as it requires constant maintenance. Well the other day we were looking through our old pictures from the eHome tour and noticed something new. Right next to a PC labeled "Draco" is a PC labeled "Horseshoe." Now we weren't able to find any indication of what project horseshoe was, but the same PC had another sticker with DVB-S/T on it. This just happens to be the encoding Sky TV uses. This combined with the recent partnership announcements with Microsoft and Sky has us thinking that this little white box in the picture below is actually a Sky TV HD tuner for Media Center, but we've been wrong before.
Managed Copy. Since Microsoft PlayReady is one of the supported DRM technologies that can be used to protect full quality copies of Blu-ray Discs, we'd really love to see Microsoft announce support for Media Center. On one hand we think Microsoft will leave this to 3rd parties the way that it currently does for Blu-ray playback, but at the same time hope that all the necessary tie-ins are already built into Media Center. We are already seeing some of this in Windows 7 with all the updates to Movie Library, but we'd love to see more. So our prediction is that there will be some Managed Copy related announcement from Microsoft or one of its partners.
We just can't believe that Microsoft has been wasting its time with the Internet TV beta for no reason, so we just have to believe that there will be some sort of content announcement surrounding it. This is another area where there are plenty of indicators pointing to a direction Microsoft wants to go, but no real evidence that it's going to happen. With PlayReady working with so many internet based delivery methods and the obvious stop gap that Media Center provides as we all try to access content from various locations on our HDTV, it just makes sense that Microsoft is doing everything in its power to bring more internet content into Media Center. We do NOT expect there to be any Hulu partnership announced though, as we think it is very obvious that Hulu does not want its content on the TV, but other sources like Netflix in the US, and BBC in the UK are easy guesses.
- Updated firmware for existing DCT that supports SDV and less DRM
- DISH Network HD Tuner
- Live Mesh WebGuide
- Zune HD -- Wifi streaming and remote control
- New Digital Cable Tuner from ATI
- Official Hauppauge HD PVR driver
- Sky TV HD tuner
- Silverlight Media Center video playback
- Internet TV partners like BBC and Netflix
- Zune video store on Media Center
- Official Blu-ray Managed Copy support in Media Center
- DirecTV Tuner (HDPC-20)
- A new 3rd party Extender for Media Center platform
Even if only half of these come true it will still be an exciting CEDIA for Media Center fans and now is the best time for Microsoft to show it is dedicated to the Media Center platform -- you know with all the concerns in the community that "TV on the PC" is the new direction. Like everyone else, we see that Microsoft is moving in another direction with its marketing, but at the same time we don't believe Microsoft is going to abandon all the great work it has done in this space. In fact we believe that this CEDIA, and the release of Windows 7 a month later, will be the watershed moment in the adoption of Media Center as a whole home media hub solution. Many have been trying it for years, but no one else has tried to take it on from so many angles. And while that shotgun approach has made Microsoft look lost in the past, as everything comes together it will become the strength of the platform. Now there is a good chance that we're way off on all of this, and in that case, we'll be more concerned that the only available solutions are lackluster, than we will be with the fact that we were wrong in thinking that Microsoft could actually pull this thing off.