The war for the family room – Part 1

The 1990’s saw Microsoft invest considerably in IPTV research as well as investing directly in communications providers, in 1998 they collaborated with Sega on the Dreamcast and they acquired WebTV for $425M in 1997. I distinctly recall no end of criticism from the press for Microsoft’s continued investment in IPTV, something that Microsoft felt was a longer term investment, but that pundits missed the wisdom of. The Dreamcast is of course now discontinued, as is WebTV, though it is hard for me to look at Google TV and not innately think of it as WebTV with an application platform. The form factor, and even the controversial full keyboard included with the device(s)

Since the original Xbox shipped almost 9 years ago, Microsoft has been fighting a war for the family room, in order to be the hub of your entertainment (gaming, and to a degree, larger) world. They’ve also thrown down several other gauntlets. Microsoft’s efforts to break in to the “last mile” of video for some time resulted in the Windows CE-based UltimateTV platform used by DirectTV (discontinued in 2002 amidst aggressive competition) and now providing the Mediaroom platform used by AT&T U-verse and Deutsche Telekom, among others, which has recently added the ability to view live content on the Xbox 360 as if it was a native receiver and use Windows Phone 7 to schedule or view recorded content.

Windows XP Media Center Edition (“MCE”) really began the process of Microsoft exploring the family room with their own “standalone” platform beyond the Xbox, albeit on traditional OEM PC’s decked out with TV Tuners, high-end video cards (and significant HDD space and RAM). MCE was initially a special version of XP that honestly only the geekiest, most Windows-centric videophile could stay in love with – I was in love with it for awhile – until the system began misbehaving and costing me recordings – reminding me that PC’s aren’t appliances. MCE was complete with it’s own thin clients (Media Center Extenders or “MCXs”, including the Xbox 360). A platform that puts a Windows PC at the heart of your entertainment world isn’t something most consumers were willing to buy into, and the irony is that MCXs were created to let you move your MCE system back out of the family room into an office or other location – so even if MCE was to be your entertainment hub, it was to be relegated to somewhere less thermally and acoustically challenging than a stack of dedicated A/V equipment. Devices that acted solely as Media Center Extender devices were short-lived and now no longer exist – the Xbox 360 remains the sole “extender” available, and was the only one ever able to view HD-quality content.

Even with a software development API that allowed integration into the Media Center Edition user interface, there was never any vibrant third-party application ecosystem for Media Center in the manner that there is for the iPhone or Android devices. In true Microsoft form, the focus was on providing a content platform – at best, a user-experience – to the standard consumption of “dumb tv” content*. Microsoft provides applications and platforms – that’s what they do. Media Center functionality remains available, and is included as a component of many versions of Windows Vista and Windows 7.

Interestingly, the original MCX form factor from Linksys (also white-labeled by HP) were dead-silent solid state devices not unlike the new generation of Apple TV hardware (MCXs ran Windows CE whereas the Apple TV runs iOS – the latter is effectively an 8GB iPod Touch with no accelerometer or display) – though extenders were designed in a form factor that blended in with A/V hardware, versus the Apple TV’s diminutive size that hides well but frankly looks odd tucked into (onto?) a stack of components. MCX systems though, were dumb terminals with limited local CPU. Using a technically impressive “mashup” of sorts with RDP (Microsoft’s Remote Desktop protocol) and QoS-managed streaming video to a small transparent window on the RDP display, MCX systems gave the illusion that you were running the Media Center experience locally. But critically, this thin-client approach resulted in a platform that cannot support locally installed applications. To my knowledge, the Xbox 360 uses the same thin client approach as a MCX, but of course has a much more robust platform locally that is used to develop games – a derivative of which has been used for development of applications and games on Windows Phone 7.

Apple TV units began shipping last month. Google has now shown hardware from Sony and Logitech running their Google TV platform. At this point, Apple TV appears to be largely about consuming any iTunes content that you already have, or using it to stream rented iTunes or Netflix content or  kiosk (Apple’s objective being getting you to consume media content). Unsurprisingly, Google TV will be largely focused on consuming web content and making other content easily searchable (Google’s objective being ad revenue on the way to helping you find what you want), as well as helping you navigate recorded content and programming schedules. Though for now it appears that there will be limited exposure to data mining of TV viewing habits while using Google TV, it will surely become part of their exercise in organizing the world’s information. In it’s first incarnation, Google TV will be delivering a narrow portfolio of built-in applications, and Google has announced a broader plan to provide for an open app ecosystem not unlike that for Android phones.

Given the fact that Apple TV is in essence a current generation iPod Touch, running iOS, it is all but certain that there will be a similar app story for the Apple TV platform – especially taking into account that Apple put out the original iPhone with no app platform, but rectified that not long afterwards. I’m not privy to Apple’s internal planning, but while it’s got a horribly absent third-party app story now, I’ve got a theory about what an Apple TV app platform could possibly bring with it that could make it truly a game changer. I’ll shortly follow up with my next post discussing the coming war for the family room. A war which will have three familiar players (perhaps not the three you’re thinking of), considerable opportunity, and an amazing set of possibilities for new consumer functionality.

*When I say “dumb TV”, I mean wrapping classic broadcast content up in a pretty, time-shiftable candy shell. MCE is effectively a DVR that can also play back music, movies, and photos. The alternative is creating either a platform that consumes licensed content (a-la iTunes) at the benefit of the consumer in order to avoid watching ads by paying for the content explicitly, or the option I expect Google to execute, which will focus on making the advertising more dynamic/custom – in time. After all, Apple is now a content company, and Google is an advertising company.

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  1. […] the car. In fact, pondering what the infrastructure might look like, I kept getting flashbacks to Windows Media Center Extenders, which are remote thin clients that rendered a Windows Media Center UI over a wired or wireless […]