The Future of Windows Media Center Extenders

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Bad news for Windows Media Center fans these last few days, as we’ve received confirmation from both Linksys and HP that they’re discontinuing their extender lineups. Brent offers Microsoft some tips over on Geek Tonic, including branding their own hardware, to breathe new life into this fine multi-room solution.

That’s a good start, but where Microsoft has repeatedly failed in the CE space is in marketing their products. (See Zune.) Media Center is a solid offering that most people know nothing about or that it’s probably built right into their copy of Vista (along with the capable Windows Movie Maker – take that, iLife). Which is why these third parties are unable to move sufficient quantities of extender hardware to keep them in production. (HP’s earnings are down 17%.) And given that niche market, HP, Linksys, etc are essentially competing amongst themselves for the same small audience. Perhaps emphasizing Brent’s suggestion that MS spearhead a hardware extender product line. Beyond the Xbox 360. And invest some advertising dollars into it.

Speaking of that Xbox 360, other than a few standouts such as the Roku media streamer, we consumers don’t seem too interested in dedicated video hardware – we’d rather see these services bundled into multifunction devices. Converge, baby, converge. And while folks speculate on the possibility of a slimmed down PS3 refresh, it wouldn’t surprise me to see a smaller, sleeker, and quieter (!) Xbox 360 unveiled this fall. Although, that could be my wishful thinking. At $200, I’d put one in every room – Internet video on demand, Netflix streaming, Media Center extender. Oh yeah, it plays games too.

It’s possible Microsoft intends to de-emphasize the television component of Media Center going forward. Sure seems like the premium content providers are. DirecTV blew up their Windows tuner initiative, DISH tuning is MIA, and CableCARDs are still a bear. Plus, MS’s new Windows 7 media Remote Media Streaming feature (son of WebGuide?) conspicuously lacks support for live content. That’s not to say Windows 7 doesn’t feature (some) Media Center enhancements (and Vista MC gets Netflix today, no extender support), just that this doesn’t seem like the high profile, high priority project many of us have hoped for. Which opens the door for others.

27 thoughts on “The Future of Windows Media Center Extenders”

  1. Maybe we’re overreacting. And these companies have merely retrenched to produce v3 extender hardware. Here’s to hoping…

    Also, I should mention I mentally processed and wrote this piece at three different times. Normally, I can maintain a coherent point. In this case, I may have lost it. (But I’m pleased with my minor Photoshop work.) My basic premise is that no one’s figured out how to really make money with dedicated (Windows) media extenders – it’s partially lack of consumer demand/interest, but it’s also a lack of consumer education/marketing (which is on Microsoft). These go hand in hand.

    Personally, I prefer the hub/spoke model of media distribution from a management standpoint. In fact, until my HP MediaSmart implosion I’d intended to run a headless SageTV install feeding their extenders. Maybe I’ll try at another time.

    (Perhaps related: Sling’s former Director of Products Ted Malone has landed at Microsoft as a Mediaroom VP. MS has re-orged a few times, so I’m not sure where or if there’s currently overlap between Mediaroom and Media Center.)

  2. Microsoft needs to incentivize Blu-Ray manufacturers to add MCE into new players. I’d love to see MCE built directly into TV sets, but that seems somewhat less likely. Microsoft needs to take a lesson from Netflix and get support for Media Center built into every device.

    I also like the thought of a thinner, cooler, quieter Xbox 360 for $199. I think that device would move a lot of units– especially if, in the remote chance, it added a Blu-Ray drive to the package.

  3. I think the problem has nothing to do with Microsoft. cable labs needs to come up with a modern way of selling cable card tuners for pc’s…I should be able to buy an ati one for $50 a piece by now,install them at home on any pc and authorize them over the internet or something so that every pc I have can be turned into an HD home media server. If this was the case, these extenders would be flying off of the shelves of every Best Buy

  4. I think there are two problems here:
    1) Media Centers are too hard for enthusiasts (OTA or Cable Card only, Cable Card a pain, requires OEM components)
    2) Media Centers are too hard for everyone else. Why bother setting up a media center, making sure your PC stays running all the time, bother with networking (wireless or wired), when you can just by a TiVo and it just works? Or better yet, a cable company DVR.

    Better than MS branded extender boxes would be MS branded Media Center boxes – dedicated boxes in the vein of Tivo or Moxi that are primarily DVRs but have the functionality of a computer…or heck, even strip away all computing functions except maybe web browsing, and you have an appliance.

  5. I think, the problem is that media extenders aren’t something that a mass-market consumer would buy (i.e. the ones who don’t even know they have VMC), but the niche audience who has HTPC setups knows better than to buy crappy extenders with limited functionality & codec support. If they are buying anything, it’d be Sage HD or other dedicated streamers like PCH, WD TV, etc.

  6. This is, primarily, a marketing problem. Demand generation is just not there in the consumer space in Microsoft’s culture. MSFT’s culture is at its heart a business IT technology firm. They have conferences and certifications for professional IT staff and management, and they have a large salesforce designed to keep those parties aware and interested in their products & services.

    On the consumer side, Microsoft benefited by being at the beginning of the PC revolution, and as such, did not have to market as much as a traditional CE firm would have to. Windows 95 was an exception in this rule, but it only takes one look at Apple’s TV and general marketing strategy to see that plastering the world with ads around their products generates demand.

    Scott Adams, an otherwise brilliant life observer, recently blogged that there was no home media server solution in the world that could stream TV content (live and recorded) along with movies, photos, and videos to up to 3 TVs in his house.

    He seriously believed he’d done his research.

    The fact is, he shouldn’t have had to do his research. Media Center is a complete unknown in the mainstream space of our society. Even amongst smart, tech-savvy people.

    Microsoft’s culture is to blame here. The XBox was run as a separate division, which allowed that team to be consumer-focused. Media Center is an app shipped for free within Vista with no distinct business model of its own.

    WMC is a brilliant product that is still a lap or two ahead of all of the competition. Why/how Microsoft could let this viable lead in this compelling space go to waste will likely never be fully known. But it’s pretty easy to create an educated guess.

  7. I love my media center. Once you install a couple of plugins (SecondRun, MyMovies, etc) it is elegant and gives you access to almost everything you could want (still want an plugin…).

    Setting it up was not that difficult since Harmony has a profile for Media Center remote.

    When Comcast killed my analog channels I sold my Tivo (where is channel re-map?) and bought a Dell Studio Hybrid. The only feature I miss from Tivo is remote scheduling.

    I agree that the biggest problem is marketing and Cable Labs. If Microsoft marketed it at all and Cable Card readers were as cheap as they should be, they would have a huge hit. Not just from enthusiasts, but from other CE companies who would build a small form factor media center box. People would line up for a flexible DVR that did not require monthly access fees and did not cost as much as Moxi.

  8. Yeah, I’m one of those enthusiasts who might be a target for a product like this, and never saw the need. We use Tivo’s everywhere, and are quite happy with them. CableCards and all. And I’ve got an Apple TV for the HD rentals, photo browsing and music streaming.

    So I don’t need a media center to record anything, and couldn’t record most things with my desktop anyway, since it isn’t cablecard certified. The initial rollout of cablecard support (e.g. the multiple day installs at Engadget HQ and others with like 5 guys on site etc) probably didn’t help any of this.

    Even the Tivo market is small enough that they’re not profitable, and 90+% of the DVRs in the US come from the cable and satellite companies. And they are much easier to install and understand than any MCE/extender solution.

    The one thing I’d want another box for is for things like Hulu access. Can I do Hulu on XBox? I assume I can install XBMC to do this, assuming Hulu is working that day. More likely I’ll buy a small nettop or something like a Dell Studio Hybrid and just run a standard PC so I don’t have to deal with such things.

  9. Problem with the Xbox in every room scenario is, assuming you want to play networked games on them all) you’ll need Xbox Live accounts for each machine, diminishing the usefulness of this solution.

    Or would you? Can you have an Xbox Live account established on more than one Xbox at a time. I thought at one time you could but when I tried to implement this with a buddy (setting up his account on my system for when he visited) knocked the account off his home Xbox.

  10. I think all points are accurate. Techno geeks like myself cant get enough of the limit less streamlined entertainment options a media center offers. But Cable TV is a paradigm and media centers just don’t have the mojo to change that paradigm in the mainstream. I don’t think the cable companies want to give that ground. And theyre in no hurry to offer live TV integration when the demand is low. DirecTV scrapped its external card box and instead put out the clunky DirecTV2PC which fails to work for many simply by virtue of its burdensome HDCP requirements. Cable TV is free of such hassles. I think until a fully functional Cable TV service (DirecTV,Comcast) is available, Media Centers are going to have a hard time catching on.

    So it’s not hard to see why hardware makers are questioning the value in the MC market. Rest assured the Media Center is the future. But I think the future is still in the future.

  11. The problem has nothing to do with Microsoft. It has everything to do with Hollywood’s love affair with DRM and control over their video. Vista MCE with extenders is not an approved method of “broadcasting” video from the content owners. They and cable would much rather monetize every TV in your house than provide you with a single feed that you can distribute as you see fit within your house. For that reason, the extender premise breaks down while a directly connected to the source Netflix set-top box succeeds.

    This has everything to do with Hollywood wanting to be able to monetize every single display showing their content. To allow any sort of Media extender on their content obfuscates the end device meaning they lose control of the distribution chain for their content. Vista MCE with extenders is a fantastic idea that will never see the light of day because the content industry cannot grow up.

    I was hoping Vista MCE or Verizon’s IPTV would break those walls down but in the end all services are slaves to the will of the content owners and as such have zero power.

  12. Derek, you’re partially correct. Hollywood and other content producers do seem intent on protecting their product and eeking out every last dime they possibly can from us consumers.

    But you are wrong about Microsoft’s platform. MS DRM is used/trusted by the industry to protect movies via such services as CinemaNow, Amazon VOD, and Netflix streaming. Additionally, CableCARD content can be streamed from a PC with tuners to extenders. Including your Verizon FiOS channels. It’s all aboveboard.

  13. I’m sure that it would be a success if you techno geeks started to talk in a way that ordinary people understand. The market will not be there, as long as a Google search of how to connect the windows media center with Comcast, Directv or other major vendors gives almost zero results.

  14. I have been running Windows media Center for years, of windows XP Media Center Edition, I have 2 extenders, One HP, one Linksys, and I have the X-Box 360…

    I want Microsoft to keep up with this project, adn expand. It would be great to see microsoft add it to Blu-ray players like netflix, or to get Netflix with my old extenders.

    Also a friend had Tivo, introduced him a few years back to this with Microsoft XP Home, he upgraded to Vista later and Loves the Media Center over his old Tivo.

    I just added a 1Tb hard dive soo can record more. Wish I could record more than one show at a time though. Plus I have DirecTV, so I need a receiver just for the computer.

    Love the Media Center, just want it more available and upgraded.

  15. Intersting points here… just to comment back on a few others

    1) cable company doesn’t care about DRM – really they don’t (I work for one the the top 3 cable companies in the US) – MEDIA companies care about DRM. They seek and destroy (or shoot in the foot) every major device that’s designed to stream seperately…

    Don’t believe me… do searches for the Digeo “Moxi Mate” a nice little device that allowed a cable DVR (moxi) to be extended to a second TV. They not only had that idea, but plans for built in Wi-fi router (consolidate your DVR and home network…) DVR player and on high end models, DVD Recorder…

    all of these pulled because Media companies put pressure on them… how dare they suggest a cable box be able to RECORD content to disk… afterall, someone might actually burn it to disk then give it to someone else who didn’t pay for the box, channel, etc etc.

    They seem to forget the fact that this technology is out there and we do it all the time reguardless… they forget the fact that people who are determined will find a way. and most importantly they forget the fact that the could really SELL something that did all these things more conviently.

    As for MCE… I’m running it from Win7 64 and love it… got a $25 remote and I run it over my 22in flat screen monitor… since the computer is in the bedroom, it’s nice to stream netflix as well as my own downloaded content. Seems alot of MCE addons aren’t working so hot (perhaps it’s just Win7 64, but that would be odd given how well everything else is running on it)

    Anyway… sad but true, about the best solution for video through MCE would be to run the output of a cablebox though it… yes, this makes using the DVR functionality a pain – but if you pair it with a good cable co DVR (like a motorola DCH 6416) you’ll be able to “rip” any programs you really want to keep, and watch TV through your Media Center setup.

    Personally, I’d prefer to keep it a little seperated… given the MPAA’s lockdown on Digital broadcasting, you’re only going to be able to really rip via Analog unless you’ve got some sweet hardware indeed.

    So I keep my MCE for Netflix streaming and playing my music collection and my DVR for TV programs… would be nice to intergrate the two, but coming from a cable insider, cards are not ready for primetime

  16. Anyone who can lend me some advise please. I have been using media center on my vista HP on my desk for a couple of years. Really love being able to use the guide and select the shows to record. Would love to watch recorded content on other TVs in my house. Every time I look for info on media center extenders I find almost nothing but negatives. Can I use one of these and be happy with the result?

    We receive TV broadcast over the air through our antenna and get great HD reception and enough channels to keep us happy. Husband just cannot stand the thought of paying for TV just to get DVR service. I just want a nice way to record the shows I want and watch them where I want instead of at my desk.

    Thanks in advance.

  17. Up until this point I had heard of the term Media Center Extender and vaguely knew they were to do with streaming, but had no serious interest in such a device.

    Now, everything has completely changed – and all because of my new HP MediaSmart Windows Home Server. I suddenly find that I have a real need to to have a dedicated media center extender to access content on WHS.

    However, I’m completely stunned that they have practically all stopped manufacturing these. The best one being the HP MediaSmart Connetor which would have been perfect except that it is now discontinued and it doesn’t look like they ever manufactured these for UK use!! I need a PAL version rather than NTSC.

    The whole situation is now ludicrous. Now that there are so many people beginning to use WHS, what are we supposed to do.

    I am not in agreement that the new TV’s will have dlna and network functionality to satisfy me. Simply because I only bought my tv, two years ago and I won’t be looking for another for at least another 5 years. At any rate, not at the current kind of prices.

    I wish I could petition HP to bring back the MediaSmart connector. Also, I wish that the software also supported web browsing, and could handle sites like youtube, twitter, facebook, even email, if only in a limited fashion.

  18. Thanks to everyone for your thoughful posts. A blue ray player with an extender would be an easy purchase for me. I just don’t think I can bring myself to buy a 360.

    The whole thing just makes too much sense. Why is this not catching on? There must be more to this story than meets the eye.

  19. Can you use an inexpensive PC as an extender? I see these $200 form factors that have HDMI output – can I use one to extend from my new MC? Plan to by the Ceton card and give cablecard another shot – never successfully got one installed in my 70″ JVC TV – so we gave up after the 16th card. I sure hope we don’t have that issue with the Ceton card.

  20. Guy’s

    Blue is really on the cusp of the point. With the advent of the Atom processor and Nvidia ion the media extender is rendered obsolete. Why in the world would you buy an extender with all of the limitations when for $100 more you can have a full blown pc.

    I have 3 Acer R3610’s and 1 Xbox for my son. I’ll take the Acer all day long with the additonal functionality.

  21. Do you have CableCARDs on each of those three PCs? That’s why I want extenders – one CableCARD DVR hub for digital cable (live or recorded) around the house. Once the HDHomeRun CableCARD product hits, maybe the scenario changes.

  22. I strongly suspect that this really is a DRM issue, as all future extension schemes will need to support all forms of DRM, which means license fees etc. And so far this has not become a mass market, much as many of us love it.

    And MS has shot themselves in the foot by no supporting Xbox (pre-360) in Win 7 MC. Between that & the lack of driver support for the OEM Conexant tuners, I’m may be out $300 in new hardware to get MC working when I upgrade to Win 7!

  23. honestly, I think what would help alot is if Microsoft took the concept of the Windows Home Server and built MC into it – then allowed Win7 Premium or better to act as a ‘extender’ version of MC to play content and live video from your ‘Home Server’..

    I’ve been helping people install Windows Home Servers (HP EX480’s EX490’s and cutom built versions) over the last 6 months. They are gaining popularity as people realize the value of having something to backup their content / pc’s to. I strongly believe this is their ‘IN’ to the Media Center market and extender market.

    It’s an ideal platform to place a TRUE Media Center!

    We’re already using it as a media storage house – it’s always on (unlike a desktop), it’s not likely to be rebooted while people are watching TV :) – It just makes sense..

    We’ll see if they figure it out.. I’m not a PC and if I were, they wouldn’t listen.. :D

  24. Two hundred dollars per unit is a bit much. Maybe one but one in every room I won’t do at that price.

    I would like a terminal style unit. A solid state device just slightly larger than an optical drive (no hard drive) with HDMI, Ethernet, wireless, and fiberoptic (SPDIF). Of course with a MCE remote control. Superquiet and selling for $100. A bunch of these around the house connected to one MCE PC would be a great idea.

    PS: I’m surprised the terminal system hasn’t been repackaged for home use. A family could share one $500 PC and just have $200 monitor/LCD combos in each room. Only one copy of each software necessary and files accessible from any terminal. MS would just need to make Account Set-up Wizards. BAM!

  25. I getting into using WMC now because subscribing to Dish Network got to be too much. I thought I’d give OTA a try. I bought a failry large antenna (45 miles west of Boston), hooked it up and I get around 60 channels! All the Boston channels no problem plus 2 RI stations. OTA HDTV is gorgeous too, and free. I am setting up my PC with movies and will get a SiliconDust HDTV OTA tuner that streams the signal over ethernet to my computer for recording. One time cost for everything, no recurring. i could not justify anymore paying for the crap on cable/satellite.

  26. Have a look at VBLogic’s products:

    DVBLink TV Source an TVServer

    This is network tuners for Digital Cabel TV

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