The battle for consumer eyeballs

The news of the upcoming WP7  has practically overshadowed another emerging front that Microsoft seems to be lagging in despite  being in the field well ahead of its competitors. I’m talking about a Web TV (IPTV) solution that is capable of replacing cable/satellite pay TV for some people. Microsoft has long had Windows Media Center, an excellent solution that had been stuck as part of Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 until they recently made it available as a stand alone on Windows Media Center Embedded. Apple for its part just introduced to Apple TV 2.0 with much fanfare during their Fall music event, while Google is set to launch Google TV in October with Logitech on Oct 6th and Sony on the 12th.  Apple and Google have had much coverage as usual but Microsoft sits In the background even though they have capable if not superior offerings with the newly minted WMC embedded and Xbox 360 console.

Recent reports here and here show that young people are forgoing pay TV(cable/satellite) and increasingly  prefer watching most of their television online. It is time for Microsoft to get serious in this area and come up with a comprehensive message and solution. Here are the 3 areas that I think they need to work on.

Xbox 360

This device is complete in itself with the upcoming Kinect controller making it even better yet, a few minor limitations exist.  Microsoft needs to lift the restrictions of the Xbox being able to play media from external devices through the  USB port. I know you can use plug in a USB flash drive but that is limited to 4 Gb. Opening up the the port may also enable the possibility of hooking up an external Blu-Ray player since MS will not offer this as a built in option. A far fetched dream would be to enable the addition of USB over the air TV tuners with the ability to record shows through the WMC interface and availability of plethora of free digital OTA channels in the US and most other countries e.g Freeview in the UK would make a great solution. Add Netflix, Hulu Plus, ESPN3 and more and you get the picture. Microsoft may also have an ace up its sleeve with Media Room 2.0 with at&t set to launch Uverse on the Xbox 360 negating the need for an additional box. Media Room is available from other TV providers in other countries as well. A web browser would be really helpful for convenience when one has to quickly check or follow through on some information online and doesn’t want to get up and go to a computer. Come on Microsoft, even the Wii has a browser!

Windows Media Center

Like I said earlier, this product has existed in obscurity from most  people because of poor execution and positioning by MS. It has everything needed for an all in one solution with the advantage over Apple TV and Google TV in that it can exist as a stand alone box without the need for any other device. It provides multiple tuner support  via over OTA  TV tuner cards or cable company  compatible cards like the Ceton infiniTV 4. Read this excellent comparison between TiVo vs WMC on Engadget. With the introduction of Windows Media center embedded, the product might be finally set free to excel on stand alone devices without all the unnecessary components of the full Win 7 OS. A few OEMs have shown their WMC embedded products with the most impressive in the bunch so far being the Acer Revo 2 (I’m getting this one when it comes out next year!). WMC also adds the ability to sync recorded shows to your phone for on the go viewing! and also connects with Windows Home Server to seamlessly access all content from one place and the option to archive all your old recorded shows to server.  The biggest problem with WMC so far is Microsoft not providing an application store for available plugins or an easy way to install the plugins inside WMC. They also need to get more partners on board like Hulu plus, Pandora and e.t.c and bring all the Zune features namely Music (Zune pass), Videos, Podcast and Social onto the main screen. thedigitallifestyle and thegreenbutton are two great sites for detailed information on Windows Media Center.

Windows Home Server

In addition to the automatic archiving capabilities of recorded WMC shows, it has been a long dream of many enthusiasts for Microsoft to add TV tuner features to WHS for direct recording to the server. This provides a central place for all content and a central node for accessing the live TV channels from various rooms in the house. This enables the WMC boxes to be slim and silent since the server does not have to be located in the room with the TV and saves power because only the server has to be on (which is always the case) to record a show.

Miscellaneous

  • I would like to see the addition of a favorites page with new show notifications on WMC for quick access to often viewed programs.
  • Social elements for easy sharing and commenting of shows.
  • A new show discoverability feature like smart DJ on Zune or Netflix recommendations.
  • A video playlist.
  • Ability to seamlessly view my photo albums both locally and online from sources like Facebook or Flickr just like WP7

The list is by no means exhaustive. In the end, I think Microsoft has a great lineup that they just need to market and improve upon instead of letting their competition steal away the mindshare. I have not covered everything and I welcome your opinion on what I may have missed or erroneously claimed.

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