The Clicker: Dear Microsoft, "help me help you."

Stephen Speicher contributes The Clicker, an opinion column on entertainment and technology:

Whenever the subject of Microsoft's WMV codec comes up, I can't help but break out into my best Jerry McGuire impersonation. "Help me help you," I beg. "Help me help you." Yet, despite my ability to do a spot-on Tom Cruise impression, Microsoft just refuses to answer my pleas.

Perhaps I should back up.

Earlier this week Microsoft rolled out their highly-anticipated Xbox 360 update. The update was chock full of bug fixes and new features. However, to me, one of the most exciting new features was their long-overdue update to the 360's UPnP client. That's right; they finally added the ability to stream video from your computer to the 360. While it's technically always been possible to stream (using the 360's Media Center Extender technology), the new update gives the masses who aren't yet using a Media Center box a quick and easy way to stream video to the television. Or does it?

On the surface it's quite an exciting turn of events. However, as many now know all too well, there's just one problem: it only supports WMV. There's no DivX support. There's no H.264 support. There's just WMV. Now, I'm sure that there are many purists out there reading this right now who are flat-out appalled by this decision. The anti-Microsoft crowd (you know the type -- they're the ones who think it's still clever to say Micro$oft) are quick to malign anything not open source and/or anything Microsoft. Frankly, I'm not one of those people. I respect Microsoft's decision to not pay licensing fees to each of the different codec companies. In the end, the decision keeps the price of the unit down. However, there is one HUGE caveat:

Microsoft, you have got to make it easier to transcode into WMV.

Unlike DivX, whose presence is nearly ubiquitous in both the torrent world and the transcoding world, WMV transcoding is often ignored by the most popular transcoding programs. To make matters worse, Microsoft itself seemingly has no interest in helping users bridge the gap. It's here where I usually chant "Help me help you." You see -- I'm quite willing to convert all my content to WMV. I'm quite willing to hand over my digital life to Microsoft. Why not? I'm already using MCE. I'm already using a Smartphone. What's one more piece? Yet, no matter how hard I try, I just can't give my videos to WMV. Microsoft just won't take them.

I thought it would be nice to put together a simple list of programs that quickly and easily transcode your DVR-MS, DivX, H.264, etc. content into WMV. Well... it's a mighty short list. ZERO to be exact. Ok -- before I get too much email suggesting that X product can do this portion and Y product can do another portion, I'm not saying that converting is impossible. We all know it's not. What I am saying is that when it's much easier to convert my DVR-MS (Microsoft's DVR) files for use on my iPod (using Nero's Recode 2) than it is to view those same files on my 360, something is simply wrong. Microsoft needs to step up with the first party tools to make this go down.

Even Microsoft's own tools display an abysmal lack of transcoding competence. While Windows Media Encoder simply refuses to accept certain input files and Window Media Encoder Studio Edition Beta tends to crash outright when given the same files, it was Movie Maker that mistakenly told the real story.

In a turn of events that is too good to make up, this week I gave Movie Maker a ripped movie as a source. It gave me (and I kid you not) an upside-down movie. As I watched Topher Grace and Dennis Quaid "standing on their heads" I couldn't help but draw some comparisons to Microsoft's upside-down WMV strategy. Microsoft has been so focused on courting the movie studios that they've completely lost track of the long tail that is the users. Do they not understand that people will resent having to use WMV if they can't find or make any content that's in WMV?

If Microsoft wants to limit its devices to WMV-only, it's got to step up to the plate and deliver some consumer-level transcoding tools. More specifically -- two things need to happen. First, Microsoft needs to incorporate on-the-fly transcoding into Windows Media Player. It's one thing to refuse to pay for licensing agreements. It's another to all but block the user. In short, Microsoft needs to adopt the following mantras:

"If you can play it in Windows Media Player, we'll send it to the 360"


"If you so much as think 'it would be nice if this were in WMV', we'll make it so."

After all, zealots-aside, most people don't care what format they're actually watching. DivX, WMV, and H.264 are all damn good. What people care about is being able to seamlessly watch content, and as much as Microsoft wants to hope that the Content Fairy will magically sprinkle WMVs all across the land, it's just not gonna happen.

Step up the plate, Microsoft, and, if you're going to force the world into WMV, for the love of God, give us the tools we deserve.

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