On the Trouble with HDTV in MCE

Ed Bott’s Media Central � More two-way CableCARD products Ed Bott is out today with a post which is more or less an excuse in my opinion for why Microsoft doesn’t have native HDTV yet in Media Center. I’m oversimplifying things here but bottom line is Ed’s opinion is that getting HDTV on an open system (MCE) involves much more than we might think and hence Microsoft is somehow justified for being late to the HDTV party (correct me if I’m wrong here Ed).

I don’t buy it. We already know that Micrososft can do HDTV time shifting. It’s called Foundation and if you’re lucky enough to live in Washington State you just might be familiar with it. The technology in fact exists today. If Microsoft wanted to they could create a closed box inside of an open box. Whether or not caving to the content providers (as Ed rightly points out TiVo did with DirecTV and is now paying the price) is the right strategy or not is another debate.

My own opinion is that even a closed HDTV system inside of an open box where the cable/satellite provider got all the money and Micorosft got none and got screwed two years later would be preferable to the current strategy of no native HDTV.

Like I said before, if TiVo could do it, so could Microsoft. They chose not to do it and to instead pursue a path more profitible to them in the short run. Microsoft should realize that HDTV in MCE is not about short term profits. It’s about selling units and changing the face of the game later when 25 million people have Media Center PCs. Give away today for what you get tomorrow. Kind of like how a sleepy little company named Google has done it down in Mountain view.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    OK — I’m missing the point here. What more are you trying to accomplish at this point?

    – You’ve got MSFT’s attention.
    – You know what’s happening.
    – Charlie has more than gone out of his way to give you the scoop.
    – CableCard support is upcoming.
    – In the meantime Microsoft is not going to disregard the law and help you pirate the signal (which is basically what you’re suggesting.)
    – Yes… yes… we get it: Microsoft doesn’t do what NO other company does.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Why doesn’t Microsoft just buy DirecTV or Dish, or Comcast for that matter? They already are in the content delivery business with MSN – if they took on some delivery mechanism to get HDTV and integrated it with MCE then MCE would be THE box to own!

  3. Ed Bott says:

    Thomas, you say: “If Microsoft wanted to they could create a closed box inside of an open box.”

    Honestly, I don’t even know how to respond to that.

    Foundation is an operating system for a closed set-top box. I guess what you’re suggesting is that Microsoft could somehow do a shape-shifting routine on its Foundation-based box and then connect it to a Windows PC … how, exactly?

    You can call it excuses if you want, but actual engineers have to design actual products which have to be certified and then sold. There are some serious engineering obtacles to everything you suggest here, which can’t be papered over with money or wishful thinking.

    As the earlier commenter pointed out, and as I tried to point out in my post, no one is doing what you’ve asked for yet. No one. Given the size of the market and the business opportunity for the first company that can actually pull this off, doesn’t this suggest that the obstacles might actually be significant?

    And to the second commenter who suggests that Microsoft should buy DirecTV or Dish or Comcast… All of those companies are either publicly owned or are divisions of publicly owned companies. You can’t just buy them by writing a check. And even if you could magically do so, you would get a small slice of the market and instantly become a competitor of everyone in the rest of the market. The Microsoft business model is based on creating software that can connect to the widest range of outside partners, which is the exact opposite of buying up cable or satellite companies.

  4. Thomas Hawk says:

    Ed, what I’m suggesting is not far fetched. The cost of a Foundation box is not that great. Here’s the basic situation. The content owners don’t want high def copies of their shows floating around the internet. As and open system now you can easily copy television off of your Media Center PC and send it to your laptop, make unlimited copies, put it on a disc and give it to your brother, put it on a P2P network, whatever. This is enormously troubling to the content providers. DVD sales are huge. Part of the allure of the DVD is the image quality. Disney ain’t gonna give this up easily. HBO doe NOT want to see high def versions of the Sopranos floating around P2P.

    The content providers have pull with the cable and satellite operators and I suspect even more than pull, contractual teeth to prevent HDTV getting on to a PVR without their blessing. They of course hate PVRs to being with. They have no choice though as this is where technology is headed so like online music they are dragging their heels and buying time. Stalling.

    In the meantime they are giving their blessing to very safe closed systems where they have no worry of high def copies getting out and probably are striking hugely one sided deals. Hence TiVo / DirecTV, hence Microsoft / Comcast Foundation.

    What I’m saying is that Microsoft, if they wanted, could do this. MCE is not an operating system it’s an app. Foundation is ultimately an app as well. Microsoft could in fact put in a second hard drive in the MCE box that would be entirely cut off from the MCE system (except as a menu button to foundation) alleviating the concerns for HD copies. Would that mean giving up portability, you betcha.

    Think of it this way. If you live in Washington and today are using Foundation, could you have a Media Center PC and a Comcast Foundation box sitting right on top outside of it. Of course you could. Theoretically could you actually put the Comcast box inside a big enough tower and have the outputs stick out of the back of your PC. Yes you could do this too.

    Now, if this box was built the only thing you’d have to do was use two remotes and switch between input A and input B on your television set. Now could technology exist that would have one remote control both boxes. Yes. And does technology exist that could do the switching in the box instead of on your monitor? Certainly.

    Now, while this is technically possible it may be undesirable for a whole host of reasons. The first is to actually get the system to the point where you had a dual system inside of an MCE machine would be an enormous amount of work. Secondly what’s in it for Microsoft? I’m sure the DirecTV TiVo deal as the TiVo Comcast deal are very one sided. Third, this fundamentally changes the way TV is done in Media Center. It would be confusing to people and some people would resent the loss of the allure of the open system and the ability to move files to their laptop, etc.

    There are lots of reasons not to do this with perhaps the greatest of all being that hey, the HDTV market is not that mature yet and why do that when we can do CableCARD just around the corner and it will be 10 times better and much more consistent with our open system anyway as soon as we can sell Hollywood on our DRM solution.

    It’s a difference of opinion though. I think spending the money and making an unfavorable deal to temporarily get a closed system version of HDTV inside Media Center is worth doing.

    You and I went around this a little a ways back when Chris Lanier suggested we wouldn’t see native HDTV in the update and you thought we might.

    I think every day is extremely valuable and as more and more people are adopting the cable and satellite freebies less and less will ultimately embrace Media Center. I still believe that a bi-directional CableCARD solution is much further off than you might think and that having for a number of years a closed option within Media Center (even given the cost, work and effort) would have been worthwhile. Not easy for sure, but the best rarely is.

    Actual engineers could actually pull off what I describe as above and much more eloquently than I’ve described it — the question is would their business managers see this as the best path to take given the cost and limited short term pay off. I think the long term pay off would justify it.

    Microsoft buy DirecTV or Comcast? Agreed. Not practical. Plus anti-trust issues etc. etc.

  5. Ed Bott says:

    “Foundation is ultimately an app as well.”

    That’s wrong. I’m sorry, but you’re allowing your emotional attachment to this issue to overwhelm the facts. It’s really impossible to discuss this, Thomas, if you won’t take the time to understand the technologies.

    Foundation Edition is an operating system. It is designed to run on Motorola set-top boxes. It requires software that runs at the head end, and a bunch of hardware that doesn’t exist in a standard PC. If you insist that it’s “just an app” that can magically be rewritten to run on a standard Windows PC, then you really don’t understand how it works.

    Thomas, take a trip to Redmond and see if you can get some engineers to show you on a whiteboard how this stuff works. It’s complicated, really. And that’s not an excuse, it’s a fact.

  6. Thomas Hawk says:

    Ed, could the hardware in the Foundation box be put in a PC and could an application be written that would launch this 2nd operating system from inside of MCE?

  7. Ed Bott says:

    “Ed, could the hardware in the Foundation box be put in a PC and could an application be written that would launch this 2nd operating system from inside of MCE?”

    No. The set top box is a completely different architecture.

  8. JodyP says:

    “…could the hardware in the Foundation box be put in a PC and could an application be written that would launch this 2nd operating system from inside of MCE?”

    I think that you’re missing a major point here. The foundation box cannot decode the digital stream unless the headend (at the cable company) authorizes it. The two ends need to do a handshake and exchange authentication keys.

    Notice that your MCE box has analogue inputs and does not need authorization to see the video stream.

    Your cable company will not authorize a box that they don’t sell or rent to you directly (or brand and sell at radio-shack .. after turning off key software features). Hell, they won’t authorize an identical box given to you by a neighbour unless they are in a good mood.

    Until cable cards are up to snuff, it is impossible for MS or anyone else to sell you a generic cable box that will decrypt any arbitrary cable company’s digital signal.

    Sad but true.

  9. Media Player says:

    Both of you are incorrect on several points. 😉 I’ll try and reply to them later today.

    A few quick points I’ll expand on later.

    -“Foundation Edition” IS software, not an OS.
    -A closed box inside an open box is the goal, but your not looking at it from the correct view point Thomas.
    -If TiVo, so can Microsoft doesn’t apply here.
    -Thomas, your input switching idea is good, but I’ll explain later why it doesn’t work very well (or at all, really)
    -“Foundation” could [theoretically] be made to run on your XP machine. However, it’s not that easy nor would it solve any problems.

    I’ll explain more on some of these issues later. =)

    Chris Lanier

  10. Ed Bott says:

    Chris, you’re right that Foundation Edition isn’t an operating system. But it’s also not an application in any sense of the word as Windows users think of it. It’s a software platform. I’m oversimplifying to try to keep the discussion focused.

    The point is that Foundation Edition is designed for a specific hardware platform and simply won’t work on a general purpose PC. It is not the answer to the problems of getting encrypted HD content onto a general purpose PC platform.

  11. Thomas Hawk says:

    Looking forward to your more indepth analysis Chris. JodyP. I get your point. You are correct. Any closed system that MSFT might employ within a MCE box would need the cooperation of the cable/satellite provider to make it happen. This is in fact the case with the DirecTV TiVo box. What I’m saying is make a deal.

    Now if Microsoft comes out and says that they tried to make a deal, heck they offered the cable companies 100% of the profit on every MCE sold and they still said no then this is a different discussion.

    TiVo indeed was depended on DirecTV for their HD stream. But TiVo made a deal. Some might say it was a bad deal but it kept them alive long enough to now do another deal with Comcast which may keep them alive long enough to eventually gain enough traction and get to the point where their real money will be made, advertising to a huge TiVo audience, not on selling software.

    I’m not sure that I’m ready to concede that MSFT could not get a deal done. They of course can feel free to elaborate on the barriers to the negotiations from their perspective.

  12. JodyP says:

    Ok, maybe there’s a market for Media PCs tied to a specific cable company – I wasn’t aware of that.

    Personally, I wouldn’t drop the money on an MCE box that was sanctioned by Comcast and only worked with their head-end architecture. That’s what I assumed their foundation box was for, and I wouldn’t want to buy another expensive computer whenever I move.

    Additionally, I don’t think I would like the implementation. When viewing hi-def content, the computer would basically have to boot the embedded motorola box and mechanically switch the outputs to the television so that user software couldn’t intercept the data stream on the system bus. In that case, you may as well still have two boxes.

    If MS wanted to tie this 2nd box into their main interface, maybe they could come up with a software driver for the encryption mechanism so that you could plug in support for a new cable companies software, but as this is basically the cablecard implementation in (possible insecure) software, I doubt the cable companies would move any faster than they are for the hardware version. The drivers would be passed around the internet like crazy.

    I think securing the data path is the real issue holding up deals with the cable companies. MS is probally testing and ready with cable-card support right now, but getting the video to the screen unmolested is a problem. They plan to solve it with Windows Vista – which we’re still waiting for. When we get this behaviour (I know it’s controversial), we won’t need to embed the foundation box.

    I think shoving 1 computer into another, networking them together and having the 2nd take over everything at the hardware level would take longer to implement then waiting for Vista. Until then, I would find the set-top more paletable.

  13. Media Player says:

    My views on the subject…

    The Trouble with Premium HDTV (CableCARD) and Microsoft
    http://msmvps.com/chrisl/archive/2005/10/01/68671.aspx

    Chris