The sad story of the perfect media center

Posted by Rob Enderle

I recently attended Demo 2012 and one of the best products at the show was also the saddest - the
Delta DVR Media Center from Amulet Devices.

To understand why the Media Center was simultaneously amazing and depressing, well, we really should take a closer look at the origins of Microsoft’s Media Center initiative.

The sad story of the perfect media centerThe concept for the Media Center came from an idea that was circulating through the industry (about a decade ago) about how the PC should be positioned at the center of the home media experience.

As you may recall, Media Center was a utility powered by Windows. A number of industry heavyweights, including Dell, Gateway and HP, dutifully built Media Center PCs that attached to TVs or in some cases actually were PCs.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, they didn’t sell particularly well. You see, the problem was that no one wanted Windows on their TV. As such, the paradigm of a PC functioning as a hub failed on the basis of user experience. You typically booted into Windows and had to work through the Windows interface for settings, which was a two-foot interface, and then went into Media Center, a 10-foot interface, to manage your media.

Over time, as each new version of Windows was released, Media Center improved, yet one by one the
vendors stopped making the custom Media Center boxes. HP stayed the course the longest and just before launching the first all-in-one Media Center Receiver, arguably the best Media Center ever created (at the time), the company pulled the plug. The hardware was brilliant, one remote control for all the media functions including radio and volume. In addition, Media Center had improved to the point where you rarely, if ever, had to drop back into the Windows experience after initially configuring the device. 

Meanwhile, Microsof thad created a product dubbed the Portable Media Center which boasted capabilities like the iPod touch - years before there was such a device. While it was far easier to use, the hardware was big and clunky and folks just didn’t buy big and clunky.

So Microsoft fielded two products: one that almost had perfect hardware but a less than satisfactory user
experience and little marketing. The other, a pretty good user experience but less than satisfactiory hardware and minimal marketing. Many of us believed the perfect Media Center would be one that offered the user experience of the Portable Media Center (no Windows) and the hardware maturity of the most advanced dedicated Media Center.

Intel Interlude

About a year ago, Intel showcased three dramatically different media centers at its annual IDF event. One was powered by an indigenously created platform, the second was Goggle TV, and the third a Windows Media Center Embedded Edition. The first two were clunky and somewhat incomplete, and as you no doubt remember, Google TV failed in market shortly thereafter.

But other than a truly horrid name, the Windows Media Center Embedded Edition provided the experience that I thought was closest to perfect. To be sure, as an embedded product, there was no Windows interface - it was all Media Center and all snappy, easy to use, and beautiful to look at on the screen. Yet, you couldn’t buy it in stores.

Delta DVR Media Center

So imagine my surprise when I went to Demo this year and saw the Delta DVR Media Center. Here we
had a 6-tuner device (meaning it can tape up to 6 shows simultaneously) that ran the Windows
Media Center Embedded Edition, and more importantly, never once mentioned the full name of the
platform (Microsoft really sucks at naming sometimes).

Now the really nice thing about the Media Center platform is that not only is it relatively easy to set
up, but programming can be moved to any local area network PC or Xbox. This means you can use the device as a home hub attached to a multi-terabyte external drive storage device and
provide programing to every room in the home.

Currently, the only platform that does this reasonably well is a device dubbed Kaleidescape, which is often quite expensive to purchase and set up. Of course, you can do it for much less but the professional installations I’ve seen, which are amazing, are pricey. The Delta DVR should cost well under $1,000, and in volume, could likely approach half that.

Wrapping Up: The Sad Conclusion

The really sad part? You can’t purchase this product, you can only buy the voice controlled remote for
a Media Center PC. You see, they don’t have the funding to actually build this product yet - which is
why they went to Demo. The company was looking for a funding partner, so clearly Microsoft isn’t helping them out.

Yes, someone finally built the perfect Media Center but it is only on paper, at least for now. This likely points the way to what Mountain View may eventually do with Google TV, or what Cupertino will do to create a future Apple TV. Meaning, the age-old trend of Microsoft doing something first with Apple getting it right will continue.

Remember, Microsoft tried the tablet first (three times), then Apple rolled out its wildly popular the iPad. Microsoft introduced the iPod touch first (twice if you include Zune), yet Apple got it right first. Microsoft launched the smartphone first (and bought Danger which made the competing Sidekick), yet Apple got the iPhone right first.

So yes, Apple will likely manage to corner the TV market before there is even a successful Media Center.
Clearly, the lesson here is it isn’t about being first, but rather, about getting it right. Personally, I find this recurring story quite sad. While this is a tragedy for Microsoft investors and employees, I suspect their Apple counterparts find this more of a comedy of errors - so perhaps it’s just a matter of perspective.