My Interview With Microsoft’s Media Center Bloggers

Bill Gates: “We predicted at the beginning of the decade that this would be the decade that the digital approach would be taken for granted, whether it’s photos, music, communicating. There was a lot of work to do, getting the software breakthroughs, the hardware breakthroughs, the ease of use, the security, all those tough problems.” – CES 2005

Bill Gates has been a passionate advocate for the digital home over the last decade. More recently he has been showing off Microsoft’s latest effort to push the PC into the living room, Microsoft’s Media Center Edition Software. Media Center combines a powerful set of software tools to provide DVR functionality along with a 10 foot viewer interface to powerfully organize, manage and view all of your digital media: television, photos, video, and music.

From its initial launch in 2002 to it’s most recent upgrade to Media Center 2005 last Fall Microsoft’s product has continued to evolve. Getting all of this digital content on one platform to operate seamlessly has been no simple challenge.

Today I’d like to introduce you to three of the individuals who have had and continue to have significant roles in Microsoft’s big push into our living rooms.

Charlie Owen (CO), Matt Goyer (MG) and Sean Alexander (SA) (yeah, you remember Sean, the guy who did the Media Center Demos with Bill Gates), agreed to take some time out to discuss their product: where they’ve been, where they hope to go, and how they will get there.

As is increasingly seen at Microsoft, not only do these three maintain significant positions at Microsoft all three also blog regularly about their real life Media Center experiences in the off hours. Click on there names above to check out each of their blogs.

This is the first in a four part series of interviews with members of this Microsoft team. On to the interview.

Part One: Introductions and Lets Talk About Media Center

Thomas Hawk (TH): Ok, so to start with can you each tell me a little bit about who you are and what you do for Microsoft. In addition to what your role is at Microsoft today, tell me when you came to Microsoft, the projects you’ve worked on at Microsoft and what you did prior to joining Microsoft.

Charlie Owen (CO): Well, I’m Charlie Owen and I’m a Program Manager at Microsoft working with third party extensibility partners — companies featured in Online Spotlight plus many others. I’ve been at Microsoft just over five years, since December 1999.

My journey at Microsoft so far has included stints in Product Support Services and the Global Technology Support Center.

Products I’ve worked on at Microsoft so far include Windows XP Media Center Edition, Windows Media Encoder, Microsoft Access, Visual Basic .NET, Content Management Server, Commerce Server, and Microsoft Solution for Internet Business. I also had the pleasure of coding the Batch Encoding sample for the Windows Media 9 Encoder SDK (link and link).

Prior to Microsoft I was Operations Manager for a large-format graphics company.

(TH): Great Thanks. Charlie, Sean?

Sean Alexander (SA): I’m Sean Alexander and I’m the new Group Product Manager for Windows Codename Longhorn at Microsoft. I’ve been with Microsoft going on eight years, having started in Developer Tools working on Visual Studio 97 and VB6, and then moving over to the Streaming Media Group back when Windows Media Player 6.4 was just released.

I most recently launched Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 and was asked to take a new role working on the next generation of Windows in December.

(TH): Thanks Sean. Matt?

Matt Goyer (MG): I’m Matt, a user experience program manager working in Microsoft’s eHome division on Media Center (MCE). I started here a year ago just after graduating from the University of Waterloo with a Bachelor of Mathematics. My whole time here I’ve been working on various versions of Media Center.

(TH): Ok, thanks guys. Bill Gates has spent quite a bit of time personally promoting Microsoft’s Media Center Edition platform over the past few years. This says a lot about its significance for Microsoft in the upcoming years. Most recently Bill suggested in an interview with the BBC News that the adoption of Media Center technology would essentially double every year for the next few years. At present you’ve sold about 1.4 million MCE units. To follow Gate’s projection you’d be at 2.8 million units a year from now, 5.6 million units 2 years from now and 11.2 million units three years from now. Do you think that these goals are achievable and what are the biggest challenges that you guys face in meeting these goa
ls over the course of the next three years?

(CO): Projections are just that – and I hope we exceed all of them. There are challenges though. At present I’d say that the primary challenges are:

One, Making sure the platform is usable by both content owners and content users. If we can’t connect both the producer and consumer the platform is dead.

Two, Helping Joe Consumer understand the value proposition of the digital home with Media Center at its core.

Three, Encouraging innovation by large organization third parties on our platform.

And finally four, Making sure our development pace — keep in mind so far we’ve done three major releases in three years — does not stifle innovation by partners because they can’t respond to the quickly changing landscape.

(SA): Right Charlie, and it’s also about the independent developers too. We’ve seen some really interesting third party applications come out in recent months that are designed for Media Center. Everything from Caller-ID applications to RSS Readers to Contact Management software and professional games. Developers are just starting to understand how to write applications for the platform and in many cases how easy it is to do so. What made Windows what it is today was a combination of developers – both enthusiast and professional. We must never lose sight of that in my opinion.

(MG): I’m confident that our product is and will continue to be successful. The biggest challenges that we face are:

One, we need to take our HDTV support to the next level.

Two, we need to keep our user interface simple and clean while adding more functionality and features.

Three, we need to create buzz around our product. Media Center awareness is way low.

(TH): Matt, I couldn’t agree more. Especially about the HDTV part. Charlie, you really stressed the third party development as being critical to the success of Media Center. It’s interesting in fact to see TiVo release their SDK here recently and adopt this kind of strategy that you guys have had in place for a little while now.

Many companies are creating plug-ins for the software that will do everything from tell you the weather and forecast to provide full home automation. Can you share with us about some of the third party development that is going on at present and some of the exciting new things we might see brought to the Media Center PC in the future?

(CO): I can tell you that the number of people and companies developing for Media Center is beyond what we can track at this point — everyday I see or hear about some new development work for Media Center outside of Microsoft. That’s very encouraging.

Personally, I love it when things grow larger than myself and enable others to join in the fun. These are some pretty basic facts, but quite an indicator of the momentum.

At the Media Center 2004 Launch, the first with an SDK, we introduced 3 partners in a US Online Spotlight only: Napster, CinemaNow and Movielink

At the launch of Media Center 2005 a year later we had 30+ partners in 8 geographies and introduced some great brands such as Reuters, Kodak and AOL- and at CES 2005 we introduced more major brands at CES doing Media Center specific work: Discovery Channel, Yahoo, XM Radio, Fox Sports.

I really expect this trend to continue and accelerate — I believe we have only begun to scratch the surface of what is to come!

(TH): Well those are exciting developments Charlie and I agree with you that outside development will be key to enhancing the product ongoing. Personally, as an early Media Center adopter I was literally calling CompUSA every single day in October of 2002 trying to get my hands on one of the PCs. As you have improved and enhanced the product over the past few years, the stability of the system has significantly improved with each new upgrade and release. My own opinion is that 98% or more of the problems that I found in the early initial release are now completely corrected and the platform is amazingly stable overall with the MCE 2005 upgrade.

How will you convince people, sometimes skeptical people, that having a PC in the living room is as easy and as trouble free as say a TiVo box?

(CO): For what it is worth, my personal experience with Media Center at home has shown it to be pretty solid (and I expose it to a lot of partner beta code). My family depends on the Media Center PC and our Media Center Extenders for all of our home entertainment in addition to myself and my wife we have two small children who are totally infatuated with Barney and Caillou. Its reliability is up there in the 98%+ range, even with the beta stuff. p>

(TH): Yeah, tell me about it with the kids, with four of my own I had to settle a fight tonight between Caillou, Dora or Baby Einstein. I definitely hear you there.

(SA): In my family, my son watches Thomas the Tank Engine and Caillou as well. I can burn episodes to DVD so as not to take up space on my system, and my son can watch his favorite episode with Gordon going up the hill over and over.

Using Media Center for the kids is key but seriously, for me it comes down to the all-in one nature of the Media Center platform. It’s a DVD Burner, a DVD Player, a Digital Audio Receiver, a Digital Video Player, a PC, and a Digital Video Recorder all rolled into one. It syncs directly with dozens of portable music and video players. Oh, and you’re not locked into the hardware. If you want to add more memory or storage space – just do it. Don’t know how? Run down to Best Buy and the Geek Squad can do it faster than getting your car’s oil changed. You just can’t do that today with dedicated Set-Top-Boxes.

(MG): Hopefully, we are changing people’s perceptions about what a PC is and/or can be. Of course this means we still have work to do in terms of improving our reliability and stability. But it also means that Media Centers have to look good, be quiet and be easy to setup.

The other way to convince people that the PC belongs in the living room is to allow users the ability to perform tasks that they just can’t with a TV. For instance, we need to show them how easy it is to hook up their digital cameras to their Media Center’s and not just view their photos on their TV but to actually transfer, and edit those photos on their Media Center PCs. For instance, did you know that you can not just rotate your photos on your TV but also remove red eye, crop them and then burn the final results to a CD or DVD to distribute to friends and family?

(CO): Also by the way, You might be surprised to hear me say this, but if you try and like a TiVo, buy a TiVo. If, on the other hand you want something with more power, flexibility, adaptability and upgradeability choose a Media Center PC.

However, and a big however, I don’t believe this is a entirely a Media Center vs. TiVO choice — I know lots of people with both in their homes, peacefully coexisting (including eHome team members). I believe the market is big enough for both to thrive.

You should also keep in mind that having a Media Center PC in the living room is only one of a bunch of scenarios for a Windows Media Center PC. I encourage people to make a Media Center PC their next or Nth PC in the home.

For example, we have ours in the home office (not the living room) and my wife uses it for all of the traditional Windows tasks and TV or Music via Media Center when she is scrap booking.

(SA): Speaking of wives, there’s something what we call internally here at Microsoft the “SAF”- Spousal Acceptance Factor. It’s a very important informal metric we use internally just like the “eating our own dogfood” metric where we take builds home to test in addition to formal betas and usability testing.

In general I’ve noticed that my wife’s friends really gravitate towards the photo and home video features in Media Center whereas the guys seem to just want to grab the remote are into the TV and Music aspects.

I’ve found in either case after a few minutes of just letting people use the remote and get comfortable, Media Center sells itself. Our challenge is getting people to take the test drive.

That said though your comment about getting people to accept the PC in the living room is a good one. As an industry, we still have a lot of work to do. Setting up any DVR is still too complex and for a mainstream culture that still jokes about the blinking 12:00 on your VCR, we can and will do better. Fortunately, we’ve solved that blinking 12:00 on your VCR with Media Center by setting your PC’s time from atomic clocks on the Internet.

(TH): Well if getting your VCR to automatically set it’s clock to atomic clocks on the interent is not progress, I’m not sure what is. Thanks guys.

This series will be continued. Stay tuned for part two which will provide more indepth questions about the significance of partnerships in building the Media Center experience.

Continue reading part two.

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15 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    I am a consumer, and have recently purchased a Gateway computer with Microsoft XP w/Media Center pre-loaded on it. Thought your idea was great!

    However, I have glitches (if you will) with my Media Player. When viewing the Live TV the system will freeze after some time. The time period varies each time so can’t be specific about that. What I can say is that I usually have to shut off my computer manually, as the program is locking it up. I am unable to do anything, including ALt+Ctrl+Del.

    I tried contacting Gateway and was told that I would have to restore the system, loosing all of my stored data (or try to remember EVERYTHING I have saved in the past four months). This was not a resonable option to me.

    Is there any help for me? Why do I not find any other posts anywhere about others having this problem?

  2. Thomas Hawk says:

    When you say “loosing all your stored data” what do you mean specifically? Television, music? It would be easy to transfer this stuff to an external drive and then do the rebuild. Are you using Media Center 2005 or 2004?

  3. KSnow says:

    I have similar issue. I have an MCE bought from Gateway and the picture would just freeze when in Live TV for no reason. The only way to get out of it is to CTL-ALT-DEL and kill eshome.exe process or press rewind for a few seconds. There’s really no apparent reason why it’s doing this. Gateway personnel was really not helpful, when I called and asked the questions, the guy was searching google for answers. Hmmm makes me wonder… But back to the problem, one thing I also notice when Live TV freezes, the eshome.exe CPU process usage goes all the way to 60% which it never will in typical Live TV (when it doesn’t freeze that is). Tom, please help, this problem is really annoying. Thanks.

  4. Anonymous says:

    My issue is about the same, when watching live tv the screen freezes about 3 seconds after starting. This happens every time. I updated my video driver and the same thing. I trying to to use my satilie reciever to view TV. My system doesnt lock up, only the screen. HELP!!!

  5. Anonymous says:

    My Gateway Computer with Media Center 2005 has the same problem with TV Screen Freeze since day 1.
    Gateway Support only makes worthless guesses for solutions.
    Microsoft has a fix at
    http://support.microsoft.com/?kbid=820121

    The problem is that Microsoft says to contact the computer manufacturer since XP was OEM installed. Gateway says contact Microsoft since it is their fix.

    Can anyone help resolve this problem properly? OR SHOULD WE START A CLASS ACTION SUIT WITH GATEWAY!

  6. Dan says:

    OK, I too had the issue and Gateway was no help so I went digging. If your using the AMD 64 Dual Core there is a fix. Go to http://blogs.msdn.com/astebner/archive/2005/12/01/499161.aspx

    It worked for me as mine used to freeze at about 30 seconds in…No more!! I have the Gateway GT5034.

  7. Dan says:

    Oops link didn’t work Here it is in pieces:

    http://blogs.msdn.com/
    astebner/archive/
    2005/12/01/499161.aspx

    Hope this posts OK.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Its Jan 2006 and my brand new system has/had this problem. Gateway had a ridiculous list of things for me to try, culminating in them offering a new graphics board. ANYWAY, Thank you for your simple and effective fix.

  9. Anonymous says:

    You are very welcome.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I have same problem with a gateway with a P4. Tried to update driver at Gateway website, but didn’t help. Tv still freezes, you would think someone would have a fix by now.

  11. Anonymous says:

    My gateway GT-5034 TV stuttered the same way so I updated the AMD driver. It did fine for a couple of days until XP auto-updated to MCE roll-up 2. Now live tv just freezes and locks-up the pc. Searching google, the answer seems to be either wipe your pc and install xp from scratch or roll back with system restore. Unfortunately, my system installed the roll-up right after I bought the system. Is there no other option? -todd

  12. Anonymous says:

    I have the Gateway GM5072 with the AMD 64 Dual Core. Media Center live tv was locking and freezing until I found this killer thread and saw this – My problem is fixed.

    see below

    OK, I too had the issue and Gateway was no help so I went digging. If your using the AMD 64 Dual Core there is a fix. Go to http://blogs.msdn.com/astebner/archive/2005/12/01/499161.aspx

    It worked for me as mine used to freeze at about 30 seconds in…No more!! I have the Gateway GT5034.

  13. Anonymous says:

    the amd patch seems to work for some people. however some peoples problems may be due to drm’s that are downloaded automatically (for instance hbo’s protected content.) I deleted the drm’s and the lockups went away.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Windows media center is another hole in the sinking ship. It’s a failure just like Vista.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I have also been having the freeze problem on my gateway. I put the processor fix and it helped for awhile.

    The system started to freeze again so I upgraded the video card (ATI 3870). The problem went away and the quality of the picture was greatly improved.