Redmond Diary

By Andrew J. Brust

Blog archive

Microsoft Media Devices: "All Together Now"

Microsoft makes an excellent digital music player (the Zune HD), a well-crafted networked storage and backup solution (Windows Home Server), a strong DVR/digital entertainment hub (Windows Media Center) and perhaps the industry leading gaming console (Xbox 360), which itself has a growing number of digital media capabilities. But can they all get along?

That was my question almost a year ago, when I returned from the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, which was riddled with a variety of incompatible, proprietary Network Attached Storage/TV set-top box combos, from a variety of vendors. The irony was that Microsoft's own server and set-top option had a, shall we say, stealthy presence at the show.

This weekend, I took the plunge and upgraded my dedicated home theater PC from Vista Media Center to Windows 7 Media Center. Last weekend, I applied an Xbox Live update to on of my Xbox 360 consoles, and a bit before that, my Windows Home Server updated itself to Power Pack 3 of that platform's core software.

The result? (1) Media Center can now archive TV recordings to Home Server, (2) I can view the status of my Windows Home Server rig from my Media Center PC, using the remote control, and can do likewise from either of my Xbox consoles, and (3) I can configure Windows Home Server to transcode my TV recordings to a lower bit rate, suitable for transfer to, and viewing on, a Zune device, Granted, I don't own a Zune, but the feature is intriguing nonetheless.

So there is now, in an ancillary fashion, a linkage between Xbox, Media Center, Home Server and Zune. Finally, the pieces of Microsoft's consumer media and electronics puzzle are fitting together. But sometimes the jigsaw cuts puzzle pieces imprecisely and the fit between them requires some brute force to realize.

Xbox just added really nice native support for Twitter, Facebook and Xbox consoles can also act as Media Center extender devices. But the Media Center and native UIs on the Xbox are separate and Media Center offers no built-in support for these Web 2.0 services. Want to use on your Xbox? Then exit out of the Media Center UI. Want to use Netflix "Watch Instantly" services on your console? Once again, you'll need to get to the native Xbox user interface. Want to watch Netflix on your Media PC itself? You can, but you must do so with a native Media Center add-in, which does not run on an extender.

Twitter using Media Center? Nope; that's Xbox only. Catch podcasts on your Home Server? Not with software form Microsoft, but you can stream video podcasts on Media Center using the Internet TV feature. You can get podcasts on your Zune as well, but that uses different technology. Backup my Xbox hard drive and Zune storage to my Home Server? Forget it.

How can so many products form just one company work in such a detached fashion? How can the Xbox offer mutually exclusive features in its Media Center extender and native modes? How come Windows mobile is almost totally out of the picture? Microsoft will tell you that lack of interoperability is due to the separate development teams for each product. And they'd be right.

But that begs a question: why are the teams so separate? What if there were a single podcast/blog/RSS feed consumption technology and all the products used it? What if Home server could host CableCARD devices and record TV that Media Center or Xbox simply presented through their unique UIs? What if both XBox and Media Center could provide front-end interfaces to both the Zune Pass subscription service and the media stored locally on a Zune connected via USB (or even WiFi)? And perhaps my backups could go to Azure storage once a week.

If all of these potentially common technologies had their own dev teams and those teams had mandates to work with various device and platform product groups to make sure those products shipped with native support, then Microsoft's consumer device business would make more sense. Moreover, the personnel behind the technologies would would be motivated to achieve the most prolific and most consistent adoption across other Microsoft products.

If Microsoft did that, they'd have perhaps the best digital home entertainment suite on the market. As I've said before, this is one area where Apple hasn't done well and so this an area where Microsoft could score an important victory over Cupertino. That, in turn, could give Zune a fighting chance against iPod, seal the victory over Playstation 3 and Wii and maybe, one day, give rise to a compelling mobile phone play.

Maybe when I return to Las Vegas next month, for the 2010 CES, I'll see some glimmer of hope on this front. Maybe I'll see a great "better together" strategy in this space that works as effectively as it does with Windows Server, SQL Server and SharePoint.

Or maybe not. Maybe Microsoft would prefer I buy my PC from one of their OEMs, but get my phone/music player from Apple, my game console from Sony, my network storage from Netgear and my cloud storage from Amazon. If that's the goal, then they are executing perfectly. But if greater customer adoption, through reduced overhead and greater consistency of devices (across product lines and form factors) is what Microsoft seeks, then they need to change their game.

Posted by Andrew J. Brust on 12/07/2009

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