Microsoft Realigns Divisions, Is This Real Change or Mere Shuffling the Chairs on the Deck of the Titanic?

Reuters Business Channel | Reuters.com So Microsoft is moving some of the top execs around to attempt to “enhance decision-making and speed of execution,” per Ballmer. Perhaps this is good. Or perhaps this is just moving deck chairs around on the Titanic.

I have long been critical of the speed with which Microsoft moves. Mocking themselves as dinosaurs in this year’s advertising campaign may indeed have contained a kernel of truth.

Personally I have lost a great deal of patience with Microsoft home media products over the course of the last year. Along with that loss of patience I’ve lost a lot of enthusiasm as well. You see much fewer posts from me on Media Center because, well, basically I’m coming more and more to the opinion that Media Center sucks.

Why does Media Center suck? Well first and foremost they have no HDTV solution. Yes I sound like a broken record here and blame whoever you want for it, but bottom line is they just can’t seem to get a deal done when they should have years ago. As households are rapidly adopting cable and satellite freebe offerings, the Media Center PC as a home entertainment device is losing luster.

And don’t quote me statistics about stronger sales of Media Center PCs than ever. These are just regular old PC sales masked as Media Center PCs. All you have to do is look at the number of units sold without a tuner to get the picture that MCE is being sold as a cheap add on to a regular PC and not as a gateway to the living room where the real long-term power lies.

Secondly, their music player, Windows Media Player sucks. It simply can’t handle my large digital library and although “testing” was supposedly going on to index the WMP database years ago, no solution appears imminent.

Third, Windows Explorer sucks. With a large digital library I simply cannot effectively copy files or back files up without having disc errors. Large batch copy jobs are super difficult as one little error aborts the whole job.

And what is being done about these things. Probably something, but as far as I’m concerned NOTHING. Because NOTHING is being communicated. Microsoft lives in this secret veiled society where they won’t share their development plans with even their biggest advocates.

I love digital photography. They added a patch this year that allows me to see RAW shots in thumbnail view. Nice. I appreciated this. But that’s it. That’s the extent of the innovation that I feel they’ve done this year for digital media. And they’ve done a bunch of crap with Online Spotlight, but frankly I hate most of that stuff anyways. It has huge potential but the content frankly is not there. Why do I want to go to Cinema Now and download crappy non high def movies? I don’t and thus I don’t.

The problem is rather than say yeah we can see the future and we’re working on it and here’s when you can expect it instead we get answers back like, well HDTV penetration is really not that significant at this time.

Throw in that Microsoft is caught between two masters, their Hollywood partners (for god only knows why these are the most hated people in the world) and empowering their end users, and things slow down even more. Message to Microsoft. Nothing would make Hollywood happier than if your entire digital media initiatives were ground to a sharp screeching halt.

So rather than be bitter I will welcome this change today and hope that decision-making and speed of execution indeed are improved. Because today the digital landscape sucks and the potential there is so huge. I’d also throw in though that communication needs to be improved as well. Tell me that I will get an effective mp3 player by X date. Rather than have Bill Gates go on Engadget and talk about CableCARD enabled Media Center PCs, tell me when I will see one in my living room.

Perhaps I’ll feel different this Fall/Winter when the XBox 360 and the Media Center update are out, but quite frankly I’m bracing myself for disappointment already.

You know what delights me? Flickr. Flickr delights me. This little company that didn’t even really exist two years ago that today has built the most amazing online library of photography on the internet. And why did they succeed? Because they were quick and fast and nimble and too bad for Microsoft that Yahoo! gobbled them up before Microsoft could. Bring photo sharing to the Media Center PC. Let me run my Flickr favorites across the great expansive 42″ plasma screen in my living room and you’ll delight me. Do something, do anything. Say something, say anything.

I am sad to see Jim Allchin on the way out. Although I know his attempt at talking to bloggers and those on the cutting edge was more PR than anything, at least he listened. Listen to your critics. They are some of your most enthusiastic potential supporters.

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10 Comments

  1. Peter Near says:

    Sorry to hear you’re losing faith in Media Center. I think there are alot of things going right about MCE and the small team that runs with that product. That said, I recognize the issues you point out and the speed with which they’re being addressed.

    On a slightly related topic, I’m wondering if you’ve had a chance to try out the firewire hack for MCE. Supposedly allows you to record HDTV on MCE (well, that’s the net effect anyways). I have no way to test it myself but thought you might be just vocal enough about your HDTV needs to give it an honest try and let me know how it works.

    Linked here: http://www.thenears.com/archives/165/

    Pete

  2. Anonymous says:

    Did you not hear anything about what went on at PDC? Go check out the channel 9 videos. Most of what you are upset about is being addressed.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hey Thomas — I share your frustrations (and I have to believe a good number of others do as well). I have only been on this MCE train for a little over a year now and I am starting to get bitter like you 😉

    It’s always a fine line b/t becoming a basher vs a cheerleader, but I think that people understand that your voice is coming from frustration over a product that has SO much potential and has literally gone nowhere over the past year (it looks like rollup 2 isn’t going to give us anything to cheer about, go to page 24 for Accident’s write up of the OEM chat http://www.thegreenbutton.com/community/shwmessage.aspx?ForumID=41&MessageID;=124492&TopicPage;=24) with another year to go (Vista) before anything interesting could “potentially” be released.

    As a function of this and due to additional frustrations with DirecTV’s lack of an avail HD DVR for me (I wasn’t able to get waivers for anything other than CBS and ABC), I am actually going to Comcast cable (I’m in the Bay Area as well) for the first time in 7 years. I am not sure if I have the technical chops to get the firewire ‘hack’ to work, but I may give it a shot. The conclusion that I have come to is that I will just have to drop back and punt for the next year, while the issues hopefully get figured out. That being said, I do not have a lot of faith that it will get done to our mutual satisfaction since no one is standing up to the content providers and explaining to them that maybe a business model tweak might actually be beneficial.

    In any event, I just wanted to say that I appreciate your voice, even if terse at times, because I think that your requirements (an HDTV-capable DVR, a music library that works with loads of files, etc.) are those items that are critical to MCE’s success. Here’s to hoping that the shake up will get us there sooner rather than later.

    Teamills (a.k.a Mike Mills)

  4. Sean McLeod says:

    In terms of a Flickr slideshow on your Media Center PC what about an app that uses the Flickr API to download your favorite Flickr photos to your PC periodically.

    Then to view the slideshow just use the regular ‘My Picture’ slideshow option in Media Center to view a slideshow of your ‘Flickr Favorites’ folder.

    Or do you have other features/requirements in mind?

  5. Mike Robinson says:

    First off, for those about to install the firewire “hack” – double-check your 5C flag setting for the channels you want to record. After an hour or two of playing around, I report that this product works fine with my Comcast/Motorola DCT6412, but EVERY digital channel (ok I only checked a random 10) had the encoding flag set, meaning no data goes over the firewire port. So don’t bother….

    One comment I would have about your frustrations is that the product is probably better than most inasmuch as its an “out of the box” product. Its easy for TiVo to get a product working since they control the hardware, etc. Microsoft has to get their MCE product to work on so many different products, etc. Sometimes I’m amazed Windows boots at all given how many systems it works on.

    I’ve played around with Meedio, which is a great product, but it certainly wasn’t a “just install it and done” product. What MCE does it actually does. So no HDTV recording or streaming – but it doesn’t say it does that. But it does record OTA HD, does support multiple tuners, etc. Out of the box, very little customr work.

    That said, yes Microsoft does need to step up a bit. There are several items – like digital content streaming to extenders, HD STB recording – that really shouldn’t be so difficult to implement. Of course some of them, like I point out earlier, have nothing to do with the MCE product limits but the cable vendor limitations 🙁

    Always enjoy reading your column though!

  6. Steve says:

    I completely agree: MCE sucks.

    I really wanted it to be good. I switched over from an expensive Tivo/Comcast setup to a cheap MCE/Dish Network setup in the hopes of getting:
    A) An interface as nice as the Tivo, if not nicer (because of keyboard entry, etc)
    B) The ability to play downloaded content, not just recorded TV
    C) A lower monthly bill
    D) “Free” MCE extras like picture viewing, etc.

    I did get C & D at the following cost:

    1) My [Dell] MCE freezes with a blue screen (not a “bluescreen” but a fully blue screen) and requires reboot. It happens about once a week. So when I decide to watch TV, also approximately once a week, I usually have to reboot the machine. I am able to improve the watch/reboot ratio by watching TV more often.
    2) When I restart my MCE, four to six popups come up (“Your system is rebooting after a crash” “An AntiVirus update is available!” “A Windows Update is available!” etc.) and as various system services load it takes almost 30 seconds for me to get to the main TV menu. At this point I typically scan through recorded TV shows looking for something to watch.
    3) After checking through 10 programs and finding that they’ve all recorded the wrong channel due to flaky interaction between the MCE remote emitter and the Dish Network box, I give up and decide to watch live TV.
    [[4) Occasionally I find that a mistuned channel has invoked my favorite Dish Network feature: if you go to a channel you don’t subscribe to, it puts up an error which can only be cancelled from buttons on the box itself. During this time, all remote entry is ignored. As a result, I have recorded a week’s worth of this error. This is, of course, not MCE’s fault but rather the fault of some sadistic shithead at Dish.]]
    5) The TV guide is actually pretty good! Too bad I can’t tune in the right channels because of aforementioned remote issues. Figuring that some of the happy people on “The Green Button” *must* be Dish subscribers, so it *must* be possible to get this setup working, I attempt to fix my remote’s timing. The setup wizard proceeds to send me through a long setup process just to *get* to the point where I can adjust the remote code through an infuriating series of button presses, which inevitably don’t work reliably because the remote connection itself is unreliable. At this point I remember that the Wizard sucked just as much the last times I tried to fix the remote, and I stop trying, and decide to watch a movie or TV show I’ve saved on my hard drive.
    6) But I can’t, because my system doesn’t have proper codecs for watching anything in either a) a non-Microsoft format or b) the proper aspect ratio (I will grant that it gets the latter right much more often than Windows Media Player, though.) I think I can probably access saved AVI movies over the network but they are displayed in a file explorer-like view. If I’d like a better interface, I can install a plug-in called “My Movies” which grants me access to Movie Information & cover art if I consent to run an ugly VB application which cannot fit in on my TV’s 640×480 maximum screen resolution and requires me to click something like four buttons and wait 30 seconds *per movie*.

    Finally, I give up and walk downstairs to my basement. There, I turn on my XBOX Media Center (not Extender), an application written by a worldwide distributed team of free source communists which somehow has never once failed to accurately render any movie I’ve thrown at it, including archived disk images stored on a remote share, etc. I browse my movies with cover art (retrieved with one button press) and play it, then turn off my XBOX when I’m done.

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t have TV tuner, so I don’t watch anything but movies any more.

    Anyway, I’d like to thank the Media Center team for completely eliminating my unnecessary TV habit. As a result, I no longer have to sit in front of a blurry PC screen with two remotes, a keyboard, and a mouse, desperately hoping that I will be allowed to watch a show that aired sometime last week… At least, not until I hear a stream of confused expletives from upstairs indicating that my fiancee needs my help to turn on the TV.

  7. Anonymous says:

    MC doesn’t handle HiDef?

    Well, DUH! Microsoft has always been all about mediocrity. Why in the world would you expect them to be up to date?

  8. Anonymous says:

    Why are you people putting up with this? Just get a Mac and an EyeTV box.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Media center really sucks…
    How is it possible that a giant multinational releases a piece of shitware like this ? Even a small 20 people company wouldn’t do this. They’re simply laughing at customers.
    Thxs never again please…
    Definitely changing to open source solutions !!!!

  10. MCE just plain sucks. Buy a Tivo.