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CableCARD Opens Up, but Does the Marketplace?

The news at CEDIA that CableCARD will now be open to all has got everyone worked up about Microsoft getting things right and that the platform is back where it needs to be.  However, while the news of CableCARD getting unlocked from OEM only machines is fantastic I’m not sure it chances much in the marketplace.

First of all, AMD appears to be out of the marketplace which is actually a much bigger deal than people might think.  While this hasn’t been confirmed, reports out of CEDIA showed that AMD didn’t have a lot to say about CableCARD in general.  Most likely the only reason we are seeing updated firmware for current OCURs is because AMD never actually wrote the firmware for the cards, Digital Keystone did.  Clearly competition is the best way to drive prices down, so AMD not focusing on the market isn’t a good thing.

The big news it Ceton will actually be releasing an MOCUR for retail consumption.   This isn’t the BOCR I have talked about in the past (CableLabs still hasn’t published any specs for that), but it is the first MOCUR.   My question here is what kind of distribution will Ceton be able to get?  I’m not exactly expecting the card to show up at my local Best Buy.  If CableCARD tuners aren’t going to be available at brick-and-mortar retailers the concept of the market opening up dramatically is still slim.  Maybe Dell and HP get back into the market now that OEM BIOS isn’t required, but they seem to have a bad taste in their mouth from previous experiences plus selling the tuners with new PCs gets us right back to where we were before.

Price is another issue when we talk about expanding the current marketplace.  Preliminary reports are that Ceton is currently targeting a price between $300-$600, which would be a huge upgrade from current AMD pricing, but this is still very costly when you consider 46 out of the 65 PCs Best Buy lists on their website cost $750 or less.  Without a big retail partner Ceton will surely not be an AMD-sided production run which means prices are likely to be higher simply because economics of scale doesn’t work.  Maybe if/when Hauppauge ships a CableCARD tuner the distribution side will be fixed (however, I don’t believe the HD PVR has retail distribution either).

There is still the possibility that Microsoft would market this for the living room, but that’s still highly unlikely.  Trust me, the lack of cable HDTV isn’t the one thing that stopped Microsoft from ever marketing Media Center and Extender’s, and it surely won’t change that.  Microsoft isn’t likely to ever market Media Center or Extender’s, or any pairing of the two.

It is no doubt the Media Center community will jump on this change, but do you believe Media Center is now in a better place to expand in the marketplace now that CableCARD is not locked to an OEM machine?

Microsoft Enhances the Digital Cable Experience and Names 2009 Windows Media Center Ultimate Install Winner

Customers get new capabilities, more options, and a better digital cable experience in Windows Media Center.

ATLANTA, Sept. 9 -- Today at CEDIA EXPO 2009, Microsoft Corp. discussed key Windows Media Center features for Windows 7 and announced a series of initiatives that enhance the digital cable experience in Windows Media Center. With the addition of native support for additional international broadcast TV standards, including QAM and ATSC, there will now be support for switched digital video (SDV), a new tool that will make it possible for end customers to add a digital cable tuner with CableCARD to their PC, and for existing digital cable tuner with CableCARD customers to enjoy more portability for digital cable TV that is marked as "copy freely" (CF). In addition, Microsoft and the Media Center Integrator Alliance (MCIA) announced the winner of the 2009 Windows Media Center Ultimate Install Contest, showcasing the many ways Windows Media Center can be used in a whole-home solution.

"We're continuing to work on creating opportunities for partners that will enable great entertainment experiences on the PC," said Craig Eisler, corporate vice president of entertainment client software for the TV, Video & Music Business at Microsoft. "Consumers understand that having access to content via the PC is critical when it comes to entertainment experiences, and with these announcements, we're underscoring our broader commitment to deliver a rich experience with Windows Media Center."

Switched Digital Video (SDV) Support Added for Windows Media Center

In response to customer requests and cable providers' deployment of SDV, Microsoft now supports SDV in Windows Media Center for Windows 7. In conjunction with a device known as a tuning adapter, supplied by a customer's cable provider, Windows Media Center and a digital cable tuner with CableCARD will be able to tune to SDV channels. Customers can enjoy SDV broadcasts on PCs running Windows Media Center in Windows 7 and a digital cable tuner with CableCARD.

End Customers Can Now Add Digital Cable Tuners With CableCARD to Their PCs

Microsoft and CableLabs announced that customers will now be able to add digital cable tuners with CableCARD to a Windows 7-based PC with Windows Media Center. A new tool will be provided by Microsoft that assesses the PC's ability to support the solution. This tool will analyze the customer's PC and enable digital cable support if the PC meets requirements, opening digital cable options to Windows Media Center customers across the country. Microsoft also announced that, with Windows 7, it has increased the number of TV tuners that can be connected to the PC from two to four per tuner type, thereby allowing customers to simultaneously record or watch as many as four digital cable TV channels.

"We are excited that digital cable customers will now be able to take advantage of this new opportunity to bring great cable TV programming to the PC," said So Vang, vice president of OpenCable at CableLabs. "We are dedicated to helping customers get the most from their cable service, and this will be a great win for both the customer and the cable operators."

Digital Cable Customers Can Now Enjoy More TV Portability in Windows Media Center

Microsoft and CableLabs also announced that they worked together to enable digital cable tuner with CableCARD customers to enjoy more portability for digital cable TV that is marked as "copy freely" (CF). Customers will be able to play CF-marked digital cable recordings, such as those from local channels, on other PCs, devices and portable media.

Windows Media Center Features in Windows 7 Highlighted

Using new Windows 7 features such as Windows Touch, HomeGroup, Remote Media Streaming and PlayTo, sharing recorded TV, videos, music and pictures throughout the home, while on the road and to remote locations has never been easier. There is also support for the AVCHD format. This allows customers to view HD video from many popular HD video cameras.

In addition, support for the international broadcast TV standards that was released with the Windows Media Center TV Pack 2008 will also be included in Windows Media Center in Windows 7. This includes native support for both ATSC and QAM, the ability to remap channels, and support for subchannels.

New Firmware for ATI TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuners

In conjunction with the Microsoft and CableLabs announcements, Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) will be providing a new firmware update that is available to all ATI TV Wonder digital cable tuners being used with Windows 7 and Windows Vista. This firmware update will allow existing digital cable tuner with CableCARD customers to enjoy more portability for digital cable TV marked as CF. Customers will be able to play CF-marked digital cable recordings, such as those from local channels, on other PCs, devices, and portable media. In addition, the firmware will contain support for SDV. When installed on a Windows 7-based PC with a digital cable tuner with CableCARD and a tuning adapter from a cable provider, it enables access to switched digital channels in locations where SDV has been deployed.

2009 Windows Media Center Ultimate Install Contest Winner Announced

Microsoft, in collaboration with the Media Center Integrator Alliance (MCIA), announced the winner of the 2009 Windows Media Center Ultimate Install Contest. The winning installation was submitted by Dustin Anderson, general manager at Vision Audio in Lubbock, Texas, who built a system with Windows Media Center at the core of the entertainment experience in an extensive whole-home installation for a customer in Odessa, Texas. The installation integrates six Windows Media Center-based servers, one Windows Home Server, five dedicated theater-style rooms, 12 media racks, 98 speakers, and 30 zones of distributed audio. The home includes products from key MCIA member companies such as Autonomic Controls Inc., Crestron Electronics Inc. and Niveus Media Inc.

The Windows Media Center Ultimate Install Contest, now in its third year, encourages integrators to show off their talents by presenting their most unique and creative installations that leverage Windows Media Center technologies. Vision Audio's integration of the family's music, movies, videos and pictures, as well as the integration of Windows Media Center and Windows Home Server with the Crestron home automation system, and the large scope of the installation set it apart as the winner for 2009.

"We're thrilled to receive this recognition from Microsoft and the MCIA. The Windows Media Center platform has enabled us to be on the cutting edge of technology, which has provided us with critical business advantages during the economic downturn," Anderson said.

More information on the contest and images from the install can be found online at http://www.microsoft.com/ultimateinstall.

Also on Display at CEDIA EXPO 2009

At the Microsoft booth at CEDIA EXPO 2009, Microsoft will show additional hardware and software installations that enhance the digital cable experience. Demonstrations include these:

  • The new Zune HD portable media player using the Zune HD AV dock to display 720p content on an HDTV. The Zune HD and updated Zune PC software will launch on Sept. 15.
  • A home server powered by Windows Home Server software. The upcoming Windows Home Server Power Pack 3, currently in beta testing, will add enhancements for Windows Media Center. Power Pack 3 features include the option to move recorded TV content to the home server in a variety of resolutions, and the ability for users to see statistics about the home server through Windows Media Center.
  • A technology preview of the new Multi-Channel Cable TV Card from Ceton Corp., which enables PCs with Windows Media Center to play or record multiple live channels of premium HDTV at once, and stream live HD channels or recordings to multiple TV sets throughout the home, all with a single CableCARD.

OCURs Finally Approved for Tuning Adaptor Support

While I still haven’t seen specs updated to confirm how I believe CableLabs would handle Tuning Adaptor’s with OCURs , I can confirm that the next firmware release (in theory 1.19) will support Tuning Adaptors as CableLabs has officially approved all ATI OCURs as Tuning Adaptor ready (hooray for me being wrong!).  In addition the firmware should allow for less DRM on non-flagged CableCARD recordings.  Expect more next week at CEDIA.

This is one of the very few predictions that Ben at Engadget HD made that I believe will come true.

Going Beyond The Enthusiast Market

Charlie Owen, a former Media Center team member wrote a post this week about Media Center expanding its marketplace, specifically going from the current enthusiast market to a more mainstream market.  Charlie analysis comes to the pretty simple answer of It's possible, but highly unlikely at this point.”

I had previously come to this conclusion, but to me the real question is “will Microsoft attempt to develop for the enthusiast market?”  Lucky for me, Charlie replied to my comment with exactly what I was expecting

Charlie: “No. That's because they have never done so. The enthusiast market is always a subset of the overall market any product targets. Put another way: Where the goal is making a profit you wouldn't sacrifice a broad market opportunity of 100 for the narrow enthusiast market of 10. Making a Microsoft-sized profit is different than making a profit if you were a much smaller company.”

In other words the future for Media Center is one or two options.  Option 1: Microsoft stops development of Media Center (very unlikely).  Option 2: Microsoft transitions Media Center to a market which has the possibility to create a “Microsoft-sized profit.” (Hint: TV on your PC)  Re-quoting myself from early this year, the days of Media Center being billed as the do-it-all center of your home are over.

My opinion continues to be that Microsoft will focus more and more on the Xbox 360 as the center of the home.  The benefits of the Xbox 360 over Media Center are almost endless from a business perspective.  The massive amount of end users (an unquestionable 30 million, with 20 million of them being Xbox Live subscribers) means content providers are going to flock to the platform.  Microsoft can sit back and rake in yearly recurring revenue from these 20 million Xbox Live subscribers along with the massive amounts of licensing accessories and the Xbox 360 brand.  Media Center on the other hard makes Microsoft absolutely no money as it is a part of the standard Windows SKU (eg. No one except members of The Green Button ever purchased a Windows license just to get Media Center).

There are still people holding out hope for Media Center to become a platform for the home.  The recent announcement that Dish Network will not be shipping their tuner anytime soon didn’t surprise me one bit.  Why would Dish bother to continue with Media Center when it is pretty clear Microsoft is moving away from the consumer they thought they were buying into?  This same concept is at play with Media Center Extender’s.  There is still some hope that Toshiba will be releasing an Extender, but I think the concept that most people miss is that whether it gets released or not means little in the grand scheme of things.  If Microsoft’s heart is not in providing a platform for the home, you can really know going into your purchase that you’re going to end up disappointed at some point.

The biggest question mark might be Windows Home Server.  For years I have said the concept of including Media Center in Windows Home Server is pointless and does nothing to expand the current market.  If HP ditched Extender’s and CableCARD due to poor sales, why exactly would they have the least bit of interest in shipping a Media Center+Home Server box?  If OEMs are not interested, why is Microsoft going to develop it?

Most people underestimate the OEMs when talking about Media Center.  OEMs are really responsible for Media Center from start to finish from a customer’s perspective.  HP and Dell have shown they have little interest in Media Center by either discounting CableCARD PCs, killing off Extender’s, and even in HPs case killing off their HT-styled z-series Media Centers.  Dish Network and DIRECTV are just as important and have shown that they are increasing less interested.

Microsoft’s latest attempt to make a market for Media Center has been the custom integrator channel, and some have big expectations for what Microsoft might have in store.  Sadly most of the possibilities have already been proven false, and based on what I’ve been told from those in the industry interest in Media Center in the custom channel is dropping fast.  I’m interest to see how much longer Microsoft attempts to push into the market.  With their partner OEMs such as HP, Linksys, Dish Network pulling out these leaves the custom OEMs like Niveus Media and Life|ware to pick up the slack.  Unfortunately there is only such much they can do.  If Microsoft’s commitment in the channel falls it might be the end of the custom market experiment.

So once again the question is what’s next.  Recently there have been some great new bloggers show up in the Media Center community with some great suggestions.  I’m done with suggestions.  Microsoft knows exactly what we want, let’s not pretend they don’t.  The issue is it is no longer in their best interest to pursue most of it.  What’s next?  Who knows.  All I want at this point is for Microsoft to publicly provide a roadmap for what Media Center is to become.

What Do You Think of Windows 7 Media Center?

This weekend I installed Windows 7 on my Media Center and thought about writing a review.  However, I think Ben successfully did that already so rather than try and recreate it I’d rather know what you think.

Looking through Ben’s list of new features and changes, the one thing I noticed was that the vast majority of them are visual changes to the UI or straight up eye candy.  Sure, they add additional functionality but channel logos, TV show images, colored coded EPG, and fancy fading in/out only goes so far when there are dozens of useful features still needed to make Media Center the center of the home.

Features like HomeGroup are great, but once again it doesn’t work with protected CableCARD content and some people aren’t too happy with that.  Several of the other cool features existing in the TV Pack, so if you managed to get it stable enough to use you will see less “new” features in Windows 7 than those who have been using Vista w/o TV Pack.  Overall I’m happy with Windows 7 for my personal use; however it fails to make further inroads into any market except the existing enthusiast market.

What’s your opinion?  What do you like and dislike?  What features are missing?

Is Hulu Coming to Media Center?

I don't believe that Hulu has a large interest in Media Center, but those very same mockup’s that show Media Center’s “PCTV” marketing also show Hulu as a key experience.  My guess is that the material Microsoft provided to Lippincott said Media Center provides an Internet TV experience, and the designers took that as Media Center providing access to the most popular service for online TV shows.

I don’t believe that the content providers are interested in seeing Hulu on the big screen as it would jeopardize traditional content delivery.  Hulu’s entry into the 10-foot UI marketplace is heavily designed around the desktop PC, and their TOS makes that very clear.

Media Center Gets "PCTV" Marketing in Microsoft Store Mockups

It has been my theory that Microsoft is slowly ditching the concept of using and promoting Media Center as a whole home entertainment experience and moving to the “TV on your PC” concept which they have been actively promoting over the past 6 months.  This concept is something that most Media Center enthusiasts don’t want to believe as it turns Media Center into a product that most current users have no interest in.  What better way to find out the future of Media Center than looking at how it could be presented in the upcoming Microsoft retail stores.

Gizmodo got their hands on some leaked mockups of the retail experience, and while Microsoft’s PR is pushing the leaked images as “early prototypes and concepts of our retail store plans” I think it will further key us in on the future of Windows Media Center.

The images, which are presented in on Gizmodo show Media Center being marketed as “PCTV” with such usage scenarios as “watching the Today Show while checking emails during breakfast” and “watching American Idol while on the blog.”  Other key features in the mockup include PC as a PVR, watching Internet TV, and managing all media in one place.

The mockup of the retail experience is driven by what look to be PC monitors or small screen HDTVs.  A theater setting or living room with Media Center as the center piece doesn’t look to be in the picture if this mockup is to be trusted.  Also missing in the mockup is any mention of Media Center Extender’s.

I have no doubt will we see things that are not clearly outlined in the leaked images, however I do believe the marketing material for Media Center is what we will end up seeing.  Notably missing from the mockups are large displays for Xbox 360, Zune, and even Home Server.  I’m not sure Home Server will get a large amount of square-footage designated to it, but I do expect Zune and Xbox to have their place (both Zune and Xbox are outlined in the product offerings mockup image). 

What’s your opinion, will the marketing for Media Center be focused on whatever PCTV is, or can we expect Media Center being pushed as the 10-foot experience that we really want?

Microsoft Unprepared for Digital TV Switch

Reports suggest that the Digital TV switch in the US went by with little confusion or problems.  Of course, if you rely on Windows Media Center your experience likely wasn’t in line with those reports.  Ben said the transition is causing grief for Media Center users, but for most that might be an understatement. 

Microsoft seemed to think they were prepared; after all they deployed a nice Service Alert tile in Media Center on the 9th that explained the issue.  What they didn’t do is update their servers and other online components to reflect the frequency changes that came with the switch.  Unlike most setups, Media Center replies on online data instead of communication with the ATSC broadcasters.  Microsoft is aware of the issue and seems to be making progress in various places, however this is one of those key updates that Microsoft had loads of time to prepare for and when the switch came it caused mass confusion among users.

The interim fix for the issue in Windows Media Center is to edit the atscchannels.xml file in C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\eHome\EPG\prefs with the updated frequencies.  You can find those frequencies at various websites including TV Fool (just input your zip code) and the FCCs own database.  You can also delete the atscchannels.xml and manually create the channels within Media Center.  To do this navigate to Settings > TV > Guide > Add Missing Channels.  The frequency is the same as the “real” number shown in the TV Fool website.  Doing this manually requires you to assign the EPG listings to the channel through Settings > TV > Guide > Add Listings to Channel.

Update: This should now be fixed, re-run your Guide setup.

Xbox Unveils Entertainment Experiences That Put Everyone Center Stage

Microsoft rewrites the rules on fun with controller-free entertainment, Facebook for your TV, plus instant on 1080p HD streaming video.

LOS ANGELES — June 1, 2009 — The future of home entertainment has a new name: Xbox 360. Today, Microsoft Corp. opened the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) with a historic Xbox 360 briefing that rocked, tweeted, revved and awakened the world to a new era of fun and entertainment. In addition to premiering 10 exclusive new games, revolutionizing the way we watch TV, and making it easier than ever to connect to friends, Xbox also welcomed visionary filmmaker Steven Spielberg to introduce “Project Natal” and controller-free gaming.

“Today with cultural visionaries at our side and controller-free gaming on our horizon, Xbox 360 authored a new page in home entertainment history,” said Don Mattrick, senior vice president for the Interactive Entertainment Business at Microsoft. “For us, this E3 is about breaking down barriers — between generations, between games and entertainment, and most important, between video game players and everyone else — in a way that only Xbox 360 can.”

During its briefing, Microsoft showed why Xbox 360 continues to defy industry sales trends. First: A lineup of blockbuster games to ignite every passion, including “Forza Motorsport 3,” “Alan Wake,” “Halo 3: ODST” and “The Beatles: Rock Band.” Next? A host of groundbreaking Xbox LIVE services, from instant on 1080p HD streaming movies and television to Facebook and Last.fm tailor-made for your TV. And rounding it all out, “Project Natal,” a whole new way to play, no controller required.

“Project Natal”: No Strings (or Controllers) Attached

Unveiled for the first time to the public was “Project Natal,” pronounced “nuh-tall” and a code name for a revolutionary new way to play, no controller required. See a ball? Kick it, hit it, trap it or catch it. If you know how to move your hands, shake your hips or speak, you and your friends can jump into the fun. The only experience needed is life experience.

Compatible with any Xbox 360 system, the “Project Natal” sensor is the world’s first to combine an RGB camera, depth sensor, multi-array microphone and custom processor running proprietary software all in one device. Unlike 2-D cameras and controllers, “Project Natal” tracks your full body movement in 3-D, while responding to commands, directions and even a shift of emotion in your voice.

In addition, unlike other devices, the “Project Natal” sensor is not light-dependent. It can recognize you just by looking at your face, and it doesn’t just react to key words but understands what you’re saying. Call a play in a football game, and players will actually respond. Want to log onto Xbox LIVE? Simply step in front of the sensor.

“The next step in interactive entertainment is to make the controller disappear,” said Steven Spielberg, visionary director and producer. “With ‘Project Natal,’ we’ll see games that bring everyone together through technology that actually recognizes us.”

The Best of the Internet, Custom-Made for Your TV

Groove, party or connect with a friend. Xbox LIVE, the world’s largest social network on TV, today announced that Facebook and Last.fm would be tailor-made for your TV, only on Xbox 360. Microsoft also announced Xbox LIVE Party for movies, which allows movie experiences to be shared — on the couch or across the country over Xbox LIVE in supported movies.

“We are always asking ourselves how to make the TV more social,” said John Schappert, corporate vice president of Interactive Entertainment LIVE, Software and Studios at Microsoft. “By bringing Facebook, Last.fm and Xbox LIVE Party for movies and TV shows to Xbox LIVE, we’re not only extending the walls of your living room beyond your home to your friends in different corners of the world, we’re creating the definitive social network, uniting more than 200 million people to share status updates, pictures, thoughts on music and the world’s best online gaming experience.”

The addition of Facebook to Xbox LIVE means friends are always connected, anytime, anywhere — from virtually any couch. But updating your status and sharing photos won’t be the only things you can do. Using Facebook Connect, you can share your greatest moments in gaming by posting updates and screenshots from supported games directly to Facebook. Don’t let your moment of glory fade away — make sure everyone sees it with Facebook Connect, starting with the future version of the premier EA SPORTS golf franchise “Tiger Woods PGA TOUR®.”

A first for TV, Last.fm,1 part of the CBS Interactive Music Group, will give Xbox LIVE subscribers access to millions of songs streaming through Xbox 360 to the best speakers in the house. Xbox LIVE subscribers will be able to create their own free, personalized radio stations and listen to them with friends in the living room or across the country.

Xbox 360 also solidified its place as one of the leading social entertainment networks by announcing Xbox LIVE Party for movies. Go to the cinema with your friends whether you are sitting on the same couch or in living rooms across the country. Starting this year, you can share a virtual theater, see your avatar (a virtual you) on the screen, all while you listen to each other laugh and cry at the movie through voice chat on Xbox LIVE. With movie parties, the only thing you can’t share is the popcorn.

Read Full Press Release

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Microsoft Connects the Dots with Zune HD, Zune Marketplace, and Xbox

This week Microsoft took the wraps off the next Zune, dubbed Zune HD.  It seems to be your basic next-generation touch screen only media player with the common additions of WiFi and an web browser (IE based).  There are some other interesting parts such as a HD Radio tuner, an OLED screen, multitouch, and even HD output at 720p via a dock.

The most interesting part of the announcement is not the device, but rather the service.  The Zune Marketplace will now integrate with the Xbox LIVE Marketplace, finally drawing a realistic picture of Microsoft’s “3 screen” vision of the future. Getting the most press is the HD Radio tuner, the non-HD resolution of the OLED screen, and the concept of Microsoft competing with the iPod touch.

HD Radio tuner doesn’t do much for me, it will give people a chance to explore something they likely have never heard of before, and apparently the FM radio tuner has been a big selling point among existing Zune buyers.  The resolution on the OLED screen is only 480x272, which many have noted is not even close to HD.  I’m not really sure why people think they need 1080p on a portable player, the lower resolution screen likely benefits the majority of people who put low-bitrate and resolution content on the device in the first place.  If you have HD content, the dock now outputs 720p over HDMI.  The big question in terms of resolution is actually what codec’s and resolutions it supports syncing.  If it supports all popular codecs and HD resolutions, that means I can sync without transcoding.

I have never seen the Zune as a good competitor to the iPod, I don’t feel much different about this one.  Microsoft is still playing catch-up here by connecting their services.  This is something Apple has mostly had for years.  Within the next 2-3 years I can finally see the landscape start to change a bit, but Microsoft is going to have a very hard time going after Apple when you compare numbers.

Lacking is any mention of Media Center, which wasn’t a shock to me personally.  I firmly believe Microsoft has moved on from what most reading this wanted Media Center to be, and of course for years I’ve said the Xbox was the real competition to Media Center (this will become much clearer as we go on).  Connecting the Xbox, Zune, and Windows finally makes all of the products marketable.  Microsoft also just announced that Xbox 360 has sold 30 million units and has 20 million on Xbox LIVE.

A few have noted that all the details have not been released and that Media Center integration could still be there.  I don’t anticipate it, but would welcome it.  I doubt we will see this act as a Media Center Extender as many have wanted.  If Microsoft could of improved anywhere in the Zune-Media Center connection I hope it was with syncing content, mainly TV.  The Zune does support syncing TV, but it doesn’t support anything copy protected (CableCARD, likely any future premium Cable/Sat services), and also doesn't support syncing content with Dolby Digital audio.  If this stays true just about the only TV content the Zune can sync (in the US) will be analog cable/satellite captures.  Even OTA content will be purely Dolby Digital next months, so even your favorite local channels will not sync unless Microsoft decides to change.

Xbox 360 Sees Record Growth in 2009

Year-over-year growth jumps as Xbox 360 console sales hit 30 million globally and Xbox LIVE community reaches 20 million users.

REDMOND, Wash. — May 28, 2009 — Microsoft Corp. announced today that sales of Xbox 360 consoles have passed the 30 million mark globally, with its Xbox LIVE community swelling to more than 20 million active members. After the biggest year in its history in 2008, Xbox 360 achieved the highest percentage growth in hardware sales of any console so far in 2009, up 28 percent over the previous year.1

The success of the platform can be measured across the business, with Xbox LIVE now considered the world’s largest global entertainment network. Increasing consumer desire to connect with friends, download and enjoy blockbuster movies and TV shows, and extend the life of their favorite games has been the primary driver behind the growth of Xbox LIVE membership and the reason Xbox continues to expand offerings on the platform.

“We’ve always been confident that Xbox 360 offers more entertainment value than any other console on the market, and these latest numbers show that consumers agree,” said Don Mattrick, senior vice president of the Interactive Entertainment Business at Microsoft. “We expect our growth to continue to accelerate. Our news at E3 next week will underscore our commitment to bringing blockbuster entertainment experiences to everyone and to growing the Xbox entertainment brand globally.”

Over the course of this console generation, U.S. consumers alone have spent $14.5 billion across all categories on Xbox 360 at retail.1 This number reflects strong interest in a comprehensive entertainment offering that includes the ability to connect with others socially and to digitally download entertainment, be it games, TV shows or movies. To date, consumers have downloaded nearly 1 billion pieces of gaming and entertainment content from Xbox LIVE Marketplace, including a broad array of premium high- and standard-definition movies and TV shows from top studios and networks around the world.2

In addition, Xbox 360 continues to be the platform of choice for the industry’s top games, generating $5.9 billion in sales to date at U.S. retail for third-party publishers, which is more than those of current-generation consoles combined.1 Xbox 360 also leads current-generation consoles in game purchases, with consumers owning an average of 8.3 titles each.1

Activity on Xbox LIVE, the industry-leading online gaming and entertainment service, surged following the launch of the New Xbox Experience in November 2008. Since that time, the community has recorded a 136 percent increase in new members, TV and movie downloads have more than doubled, and purchases of games, Game Add-ons and more on Xbox LIVE Arcade have increased by 70 percent.2 Xbox LIVE reaches 26 countries worldwide and is now in more homes than any satellite television provider.2 Before the end of the year, the number of Xbox LIVE members will surpass the number of subscribers to the largest cable provider.1 Consumers can expect more exciting announcements from Microsoft next week as Xbox 360 kicks off the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the world’s premier trade show for computer and video games and related products, with its press briefing on Monday, June 1, in Los Angeles.

About Xbox 360

Xbox 360 is a premier video game and entertainment system. It is home to the best and broadest games plus more entertainment than any other device connected to the TV. The digital center of the living room, Xbox 360 blends unbeatable content, including personal pictures and music, with a unified online social network to create a limitless entertainment experience that can be shared at home or across the globe. More information can be found online at http://www.xbox.com/xbox360.

About Xbox LIVE

Xbox LIVE is the most comprehensive gaming and entertainment network connected to your television, delivering the largest movie, TV music and gaming library on a single device, and instant access to select movies and TV shows.

With an active community of more than 20 million people across 26 countries, Xbox LIVE brings friends together — from the same living room or around the globe — to share the best in home entertainment. With an Xbox LIVE Gold Membership, enjoy exclusive benefits and premium access to movies, music, TV and games from the top studios and services, all in one place. More information can be found online at http://www.xbox.com/en-us/live.

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Microsoft Announces the Expansion of the Zune Entertainment Service to New Platform and Markets; Confirms New Zune HD Portable Media Player

Premium Zune digital entertainment service to be available internationally on Xbox LIVE.

REDMOND, Wash. — May 26, 2009 — Microsoft Corp. today announced the evolution of Zune, the company’s end-to-end music and entertainment service, to a new platform and new markets. Zune will extend its video service to Xbox LIVE internationally this fall. This marks an important development in the Zune strategy and brings the Zune brand to more than 17 million international Xbox LIVE subscribers. In addition, Microsoft confirmed the next generation of the Zune portable media player, Zune HD. Available in the U.S. this fall, Zune HD is the first portable media player that combines a built-in HD Radio receiver, high-definition (HD) video output capabilities, organic light-emitting diode (OLED) touch screen, Wi-Fi and an Internet browser.

“The Zune music player is an integral part of the overall Zune experience, and we’re proud to be growing and extending our offering beyond the device,” said Enrique Rodriguez, corporate vice president of the Microsoft TV, Video and Music Business Group. “Delivering on Microsoft’s connected entertainment vision, this news marks a turning point for Zune as it brings cross-platform experiences and premium video content to living rooms around the world.”

Zune Service Expands to New Platform

Zune will be a premium partner in the Xbox LIVE Video Marketplace, bringing an exciting catalog of TV and film to the platform. Zune will occupy the first slot within the Xbox user interface in the Xbox LIVE Video Marketplace, exposing the Zune brand experience to millions of new consumers for the first time. At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) next week, attendees will see firsthand how Zune integrates into Xbox LIVE to create a game-changing entertainment experience.

Introducing Zune HD

  • Zune HD is the next iteration of the Zune device family and brings a new level of listening and viewing experiences to the portable media player category.
  • Zune HD comes with a built-in HD Radio receiver so users can listen to higher-quality sound than traditional radio on the go. Users also will have access to the additional song and artist data broadcast by HD Radio stations as well as additional channels from their favorite stations multicasting in HD. If you don’t like the song playing on your station’s HD channel, switch to its HD2 or HD3 channels for additional programming.
  • The bright OLED touch screen interface allows users to flip through music, movies and other content with ease, and the 16:9 widescreen format display (480x272 resolution) offers a premium viewing experience on the go.
  • The HD-compatible output lets Zune HD customers playback supported HD video files from the device through a premium high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) audiovisual docking station (sold separately) direct to an HD TV in 720p.*
  • Zune HD will include a full-screen Internet browser optimized for multitouch functionality.
  • Zune HD is Wi-Fi enabled, allowing for instant streaming to the device from the more than 5 million-track Zune music store.

Does Home Server & Media Center Mean a Connected Future?

Preface: Before you read this please try and get in the right mindset.  Microsoft doesn’t care about what anyone reading this blog wants.  They don’t care what I want either.  It is a hard truth to take, but that’s a fact.  They will say that they listen to all requests, and that’s true, they do.  What they don’t do is make any sort of business decision (translation, features) based on my ramblings, The Green Button, Engadget, or anyone else.  They don’t make Media Center for “us”, and before anyone can start to understand the points I try and make about Windows Home Server you have to realize this.  You also have to understand that Media Center has not taken the market by storm, and that six years into it the vision simply isn’t working to achieve the goal Microsoft originally set out achieve (hints shift in marketing).  Knowing this, please continue.

Note: I don’t work for Microsoft, this post reflects my personal opinion.

Ben Drawbaugh has an excellent post on what he perceives to be the future of Windows Media Center, and that’s its integration with Windows Home Server.  Ben’s post is excellent, running down a logical path of what Microsoft should do with the assets they currently have.  You take Windows Media Center and integrate it with Windows Home Server, sell it for $500 and users can add tuners later.  Add in Live Mesh, Zune HD syncing, and really connect the dots for a truly logical integrated product.

Now, maybe it is because I’ve been following Media Center a bit longer than Ben, but why all the sudden is Microsoft going to “get it” and integrate everything in the logical manor it should be?  Why does the introduction of Windows Home Server mean everything will “just work?”

Here’s the deal.  It is clear to me that Microsoft’s shift in customer marketing means the concept of a whole home connected device with Media Center as its core isn’t working.  Why else would Microsoft shift to pushing “TV on your PC?”  It just doesn’t make sense to me that Microsoft would shift the culture and marketing of Media Center, and then turn around and integrate everything the way it should be.  You can see the shift in their marketing as well.

  • 2007/early 2008: "Windows Media Center turns the home PC into the ultimate connected entertainment hub and is available in every copy of Windows Vista Home Premium and Windows Vista Ultimate."
  • Today: "...builds on Microsoft’s goal to create a consistent experience on the PC for consumers to easily enjoy the entertainment of greatest interest to them."

I’ve said for years that I don’t see the market value in Home Server mixed with Media Center.  I consistently get crap for this, but that’s because everyone reading this wants exactly what I say doesn’t make sense to produce, or rather what will not help Media Center in the marketplace. How many people here are not using Media Center strictly because it requires them to run two separate PCs in their home?  How many sales are lost because of the current infrastructure?  How many sales do you gain by integrating the two?  Have you opened up a significantly new market by doing so?  I can’t come up with any answers that benefit Media Center from these questions.

If Microsoft is having trouble pushing Media Center in homes for whole home connected entertainment, the solution is not to integrate it with a product that even fewer people understand (a “Home Server”).  The solution is actually to change paths and try something completely different.  Sometimes redefining a product is needed to keep it alive.

So does this mean I don’t think Microsoft will integrate Media Center with Home Server?  No, I think the opposite.  Last year I got a tip that something is coming as a “headless” device, and I haven’t heard anything to say that has gone away.  It would be perfectly fine to suggest anything “headless” that comes out of Microsoft would be based on Home Server.

So I’ve established that I think a Home Server with Media Center integration will happen, and at the same time that the product will not have a significant amount of mass market value over that of the current model.  Microsoft’s future for connected platforms does include exactly what they say it will.  The “3 screens,” which spans the PC, the phone, and the TV.  The way I see it PC = Windows 7, Phone = Windows Phone (aka Windows Mobile), TV = Xbox 360.  I don’t see any need for Media Center as a whole home device in their grand vision, which is why I’m questioning the concept of Microsoft getting things right just by the inclusion of Media Center into Home Server.

Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong.  I’m hoping I’m wrong, but given the way things have been going, especially with Extenders (which in the case of a headless device are key), I don’t see such a product making any impact in the marketplace.  More so, I don’t see Microsoft investing the time to use Media Center as the core for the home.  Media Center isn’t dying, it isn’t coming out of Windows, but I continue to think the focus will shift.  Microsoft will still work with partners on Extenders (I’ve been assured of this), but they will still release products and features that forget these Extender’s even existed.  They will connect your life, but they will not connect your life using Media Center.

What is your opinion?

The Story Behind Netflix for Windows Media Center

Today Microsoft released their native Netflix application for Windows Media Center to much fanfare.  The release comes with a catch, but let’s back up a bit before we get to that.

I’ve talked about the need for Microsoft to get Netflix within the Media Center ecosystem, and ever since Reed Hastings joined Microsoft’s board I knew it was coming.  A year ago Microsoft announced Netflix would be coming to the Xbox 360 Dashboard and that rekindled my thoughts about the Xbox 360 being Media Center biggest enemy in the marketplace.  Today those thoughts are confirmed once again by the Netflix application for Media Center not supporting Media Center Extenders.

I’ve been testing the Netflix application for a few weeks now.  Upon downloading the first beta I read  the release notes which talked about Extender’s not being supported.  I figured this was something that would change.  Sadly, it didn’t and was planned at all.  I didn’t think I’d get to post this part because it was told to me under NDA, but TechFlash actually posted it so I’m in the clear.  Part of the reason Extender’s are not supported is because Microsoft wants to make sure they don’t compete with the Xbox 360 Dashboard.

 Leaving the technical aspects of getting Silverlight to an Extender aside, this represents a huge problem and once again confirms to me that Microsoft will continue to push and promote the Xbox 360 Dashboard over that of the Extender platform.

Fellow MVP Richard Miller asked if I would rather Microsoft have not released the Netflix application, and it isn’t so much that I think Microsoft shouldn’t have released, but what I really want is Microsoft to define who Media Center is for (do I sound like a broken record yet?) and the future of some basic items like Extenders (I’ll have another post on this later, but Microsoft keeps assuring me Extender’s are not “dead”).

A few months ago I suggested that Microsoft was changing directions with Media Center to the more customer friendly “TV on your PC” concept.  I took a bit of flack from Microsoft on the post who suggested that wasn’t the case.  Maybe is it and maybe it isn’t.  Correct or not, I’ll stick to my story because it seems like everything that comes out confirms my suspicions.

Back to the Netflix application, the delivery of this is the future of Media Center.  Just like Internet TV, the Netflix application was automatically pushed to Media Center without any initial user interaction.  If they can just improve the installation it will be much more beneficial to end users.  While the interface is very intuitive I don’t have my Media Center connected to a TV.  Given this, I find Netflix’s website more convenient.  Moving forward, if the whole “TV on your PC” thing catches on this will be a huge issue of mine.  Media Center was designed as a 10-foot interface, using it as a 2-foot interface is kind of tricky and it's not as intuitive as it could be.  This has improved with Windows 7, but I would still rather use a website to find such basic content and leave the 10-foot UI where it belongs.

Microsoft and Netflix Enhance Movie and TV Watching on the PC

Latest content addition offers more than 12,000 choices of movies and TV episodes that can be watched instantly on a PC with Windows.

REDMOND, Wash. — May 19, 2009 — Microsoft Corp. today announced that more than 12,000 movies and TV episodes from Netflix Inc., the world’s largest online movie rental service, are now available to watch instantly on the PC using Windows Media Center on PCs with Windows Vista Home Premium or Ultimate. This newest content addition builds on Microsoft’s goal to create a consistent experience on the PC for consumers to easily enjoy the entertainment of greatest interest to them.

With Windows Media Center, consumers no longer need to jump from Web site to Web site to find the TV shows, movies, sports and news they want to watch. Windows Vista customers who are also Netflix members can simply start Windows Media Center on their PC and then select the new Netflix tile under TV+Movies to begin streaming movies and TV episodes instantly. People can also search the entire Netflix library, manage both their instant and DVD Queues, and even filter searches by titles that are available to watch instantly. Windows Media Center takes advantage of the Netflix recommended category lists to make it even easier to quickly find the movies and TV shows that consumers want to watch. Conveniently, Netflix in Windows Media Center is also designed to work with any Windows Media Center-compatible remote control.

The availability of Netflix in Windows Media Center marks the second recent content milestone for Windows, following the March 2009 launch of the Sports Channel, which offers a variety of interactive sports content from CBSSports.com, FOX Sports, MSNBC.com and more.

“Netflix is excited that the majority of the Windows Vista users in the U.S. can now access a vast array of movies and TV episodes from Netflix through Windows Media Center,” said Steve Swasey, vice president of corporate communications. “There’s no better way to enjoy movies than with Netflix, and this latest offering is another milestone that gives Windows Media Center customers a great experience using the Netflix service.”

The Netflix instant watching in Windows Media Center is powered by Microsoft Silverlight, one of the industry’s most comprehensive and powerful solutions for the creation and delivery of applications and media experiences. The use of Silverlight means that customers will have more accessible, more discoverable and more secure experiences. Windows Media Center is available on Windows Vista Home Premium and Windows Vista Ultimate.

In addition to Windows Media Center users, Xbox 360 system owners already have access to watch movies and TV episodes instantly from Netflix via an Xbox LIVE Gold Membership. The offerings through both platforms allow customers to enjoy more than 12,000 movies and TV episodes.

“We’re continuing to work with the top content providers today to make watching TV on the PC a mainstream experience for the future,” said Craig Eisler corporate vice president of entertainment client software for the TV, Video and Music Business Group at Microsoft. “Consumers understand that content is the driving force when it comes to experiences, and with Netflix, we’re underscoring our broader commitment to deliver a rich experience with Windows Media Center.”

About Microsoft

Founded in 1975, Microsoft (Nasdaq “MSFT”) is the worldwide leader in software, services and solutions that help people and businesses realize their full potential.

Not Dead Yet

School is out for the semester which means more time to kick back.  I'm sure most of you know that there is a lot going on, so post any specific questions you have here and I'll see what I can cover.

Posted by chrisl | 11 comment(s)

Microsoft, Media Center Integrator Alliance Announce 2009 Ultimate Install Contest

Co-sponsoring this year’s contest with Media Center Integrator Alliance, Microsoft again seeks best residential project design based on Windows Media Center in custom installation industry.

ORLANDO, Fla. — March 12, 2009 Today at the Electronic House Expo in Orlando, Microsoft Corp., in cooperation with co-sponsor Media Center Integrator Alliance, announced the 2009 Windows Media Center Ultimate Install Contest. This industry design contest, now in its third year, seeks to recognize the residential integration business that best utilizes Windows Media Center in a custom home installation project. With the support of the newly formed Media Center Integrator Alliance (MCIA), a group dedicated to driving awareness and adoption of Windows Media Center technologies in the custom channel, the Windows Media Center Ultimate Install Contest will represent the best of the best in the ecosystem.

Last year, the winner of the Windows Media Center Ultimate Install Contest was a home installation designed and implemented by Los Gatos, Calif.-based integration firm cyberManor. The system was created for a family in Sunnyvale, Calif., that desired a centralized, user-friendly entertainment and automation system. The result was a complete integration solution with Windows Media Center at the helm.

“Once again, custom installers have the chance to demonstrate how a connected home can be designed using the Windows Media Center platform,” said Kevin Collins, director of the Custom Installer Channel in the Connected TV Business, Entertainment and Devices Division, at Microsoft. “Microsoft and MCIA are excited to give custom installers the opportunity to showcase their creativity, execution and personalized solutions for their customers using all the products that make up the Windows Media Center ecosystem.”

Contest Eligibility

The goal of Windows Media Center Ultimate Install Contest is to identify the best implementation of the Windows Media Center platform as designed and installed in a residential electronics system:

Read Full Press Release

Media Center Gets More Web Marketing

Pete pointed to some excellent new marketing videos that were done for Microsoft and I noticed one thing that just keeps coming back to me.  None of them have anything to do with connected home entertainment!  What do they have to do with?  You guess it, watching TV on your PC.

Media Center definitely needs more marketing like this, preferably I’d like to see this wrapped up with Zune, Xbox, and Windows 7 but this is a good start (I’ve said that before though).  The Key Moment video was good, as was the Singing Antenna but I’d like to see this taken further.  The Sports with Windows video wasn’t bad, but between SportsCenters ads and DIRECTVs March Madness/NFL Sunday ticket ads I feel like the film maker could have taken a different direction that didn’t just merge and copy the two.

What do you think Microsoft needs to focus on in web advertising?

Posted by chrisl | 4 comment(s)

VidaBox vAutomation adds Powerful, Semi-Automatic LiteTouch Lighting Integration

Westbury, NY - March 11th - VidaBox is proud to announce support for LiteTouch®, an innovator in residential lighting controls, on their vAutomation™ control and integration platform.  All of the standard lighting controls can be integrated onto a single VidaBox TouchClient™ or vPad™, providing the convenience of whole house lighting control from any location.

"Not only did we develop a driver for LiteTouch®," says Steven Cheung, President of VidaBox LLC, "but we've created a semi-automatic, integrated solution where virtually no programming is needed.  First, every lighting station and button can be configured within the LiteWare software. Next, by running a special program we've developed, this configuration is then exported for use by the CQC driver, and presented on our vAutomation templates.  These custom templates automatically generate scene keypads with LED status feedback, along with scene buttons for each LiteTouch® station.  This solution makes it extremely easy to set up LiteTouch® on vAutomation™ touch interfaces without any programming."

"We are excited to work with VidaBox in providing an excellent whole home automation solution," says Kevin Davidson, Corporate Training Manager of LiteTouch, Inc.  "VidaBox provides a simple interface and a powerful platform which allows LiteTouch to maintain our focus in providing the very best and the most reliable lighting control solutions in the world."

"By choosing LiteTouch® and VidaBox vAutomation™," Cheung continues, "dealers can offer a tightly integrated solution that allows lighting control to be added easily, without any complex programming.  This tremendously minimizes installation time without sacrificing quality.  Combined with integrated support for media centers, audio servers, and other smart home technologies, the vAutomation™ platform provides a truly all-in-one, complete solution."

vAutomation support for LiteTouch® is available now.  For more details and information on this innovative automation platform and VidaBox's comprehensive line of media servers, extenders, and complete entertainment and control solutions, please visit their company website at http://www.vidabox.com, or contact them at 516-730-7500.  For more details on LiteTouch and their lighting solutions, please visit their company website at http://www.litetouch.com.

About VidaBox LLC
VidaBox LLC is a digital entertainment and controls solutions company focused on manufacturing premium media centers, audio servers, and integrated home control & automation solutions.  VidaBox is on a mission to create user-friendly, stable high-performance Media Center systems that work right out of the box and integrate seamlessly with multizone audio and smart home technologies.  For more information, visit www.vidabox.com or call 1-516-730-7500.

About LiteTouch Inc.
LiteTouch lighting control products offer real-world benefits including convenience, security, time-savings, safety, energy conservation and design aesthetics. "Experience Lighting Control", an online tour detailing many of these benefits is available at LiteTouch.com LiteTouch, a lighting control industry leader for more than two decades, is headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah.

VidaBox Launches the Affordable RoomClient:SE Media Server

Westbury, NY - March 4th - VidaBox has launched the new RoomClient:SE system, an entry-level, Vista-based media server.  Starting at $2248, the RoomClient:SE stores movies, pictures, music, and more for on-demand access via an on-screen, remote controlled interface.  Cover art from movies and music titles are automatically downloaded along with every archival.  Complete with 1080p upscaling and full Dolby Digital and DTS support, it's designed to deliver a stunning entertainment experience without compromising quality.

"The RoomClient:SE is the perfect entry-level unit," says Steven Cheung, President of VidaBox LLC. "It has all the features and capabilities of our larger systems, such as storage and playback of DVDs, music, pictures, video, and TV - all in a compact-sized form factor.  What's even better is that integrators can expand upon the RoomClient:SE at a later time by offering their clients various upgrades, such as more storage, additional extenders for Blu-ray support, etc.  The RoomClient:SE strikes a great balance between being feature-rich, easily expandable, and affordably priced."

Based on Vista Media Center, it includes enough storage for about 150+ unencrypted DVDs, 900+ hours of TV, or tons of music and pictures.  Multizone AV distribution can be done by adding other VidaBox extenders, making the system flexible and expandable.  Integration of IPTV and other internet-based media on the RoomClient:SE interface provide access to a myriad of content out of-the-box.  The addition of third-party applications to provide and add more features make the RoomClient:SE an even more appealing choice for dealers and consumers alike.

"Integrators and tech-savvy customers can even add support for Netflix's 'Watch Now' feature on our systems," Cheung continues. "Media Center-based third-party apps like these allow clients to access and choose from thousands of movies instantly.  With its vast multimedia storage & playback capabilities and great price point, the RoomClient:SE is an excellent choice for any AV project."

The new RoomClient:SE is shipping and available now.  For more details and information on the RoomClient:SE or other VidaBox media servers, extenders, and complete entertainment and control solutions, please visit the company website at http://www.vidabox.com, or call 516-730-7500.

About VidaBox LLC
VidaBox LLC is a digital entertainment and controls solutions company focused on manufacturing premium media centers, audio servers, and integrated home control & automation solutions.  VidaBox is on a mission to create user-friendly, stable high-performance Media Center systems that work right out of the box and integrate seamlessly with multizone audio and smart home technologies.  For more information, visit www.vidabox.com or call 1-516-730-7500.

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