Microsoft’s Charlie Owen Responds to My Media Center “Rant”

RetroSight :: Charlie Owen :: Windows XP Media Center Edition Development – Thomas Rants About Media Center Microsoft’s Charlie Owen from the Media Center Team took time out of his day to respond to my rant on Media Center yesterday. Thanks Charlie. I do appreciate the response and I think that this kind of feedback is extremely valuable. You are obviously much closer to the product than I am and I deeply respect that you’d take time from your busy day to address some of my concerns with regards to Media Center and the pace of it’s development.

One of the things in my rant was my criticism that native cable or satellite digital HDTV support is still missing from Media Center. I should have pointed out that Media Center does support over the air (OTA) HDTV support at present. Charlie rightly points this out. I do tend to discount OTA as a source for programming because most high end users and consumers apt to put a PC in their living room subscribe to cable or satellite programming. This is not to say that OTA programming is not an option, it’s just not the natural option for most folks, myself included.

Personally OTA HDTV support in Media Center does little for me. I do not want a system that only let’s me watch network TV in high def. I want a system that let’s me watch the Sopranos and Six Feet Under, etc. etc.

Certainly Charlie is right in pointing out that OTA HDTV is an option. But it is a poor option and I’d suspect that the percentage numbers of Media Center users recording OTA HDTV is relatively small and restricted to a small niche segment of hardcore hobbyists and not the mainstream.

The problem with OTA HDTV in Media Center is that I already get network HDTV with my TiVo DirecTV PVR. You also get it with any of the cheapo freebie other cable or satellite offerings AND you also get to PVR HBO, etc.

I was remiss in not acknowledging that Media Center can in fact record OTA HDTV but for me it’s an inadequate solution even as a band aid at present.

Charlie next points out that Microsoft IS in fact working on a native cable/satellite HDTV Media Center option (I think?) by pointing me to a press release from Microsoft that was out earlier this month entitled “Nagravision and Microsoft Announce Agreement to Deliver Innovative Solutions for Digital Pay-TV to Windows Media Center PCs.” My problem with this press release as an answer is that it still provides me no definitive answers regarding HDTV in Media Center. While it would hint that “Digital Pay-TV” (and I’d assume this would mean things like HBO premium content via cable, satellite or IPTV) will be part of Media Center in the future it does not actually come out and say that. Further it offers no time horizon for when we might expect this to move from a “proof of concept” idea into a Media Center PC.

Back earlier in May of this year Bill Gates said with regards to native cable HDTV support, “Weíre working hard with the cable industry right now to get through the specific qualifications there. But thatís a very necessary thing and itís nice that the framework guarantees that end devices can get connected up on an objective basis. So weíre off doing that. In fact, we have good relationships with the cable industry that are hopefully helping us get that done faster.”

So here now we have a “proof of concept” device that may or may not support HBO on Media Center that may or may not be integrated into Media Center at some unknown future date.

Now perhaps I’m being impatient and immature here but 5 months since Gate’s Engadget quote is a long, long, long time. It’s especially a long time when competitors already have HDTV premium PVR technology out today. While I can appreciate Charlie pointing me to this very interesting press release, unless I see the additional… “and we expect to implement premium HDTV content in our Media Center PC by Fall of 2006,” this means little to me. A proof of concept device while interesting doesn’t impress me at this point.

What prompted my rant originally was the fact that Microsoft was shuffling executives in what I interpreted Ballmer as saying was a move to increase the speed at which technological advancement would take place at Microsoft. We (They’ve) been hinting at native support too long to not offer a more definitive time table at this point. Getting native HDTV support to Media Center faster, would, I believe, be consistent with what would appear to be a desire by Ballmer to respond to technological change faster.

Further, the press release quoted feels to me not to be directed at the end user who wants HDTV on his or her Media Center PC, but instead written for Hollywood as a “see our DRM does work now give us the keys to the HDTV car” message.

Now Charlie makes a good point that this may be a necessary step but I still can’t help but to wonder if the content providers aren’t being dragged fighting and kicking into this whole thing and will use any delay tactic possible. Whatever the case it doesn’t say to me that we will see premium HDTV content on Media Center any time soon.

Next Charlie takes me to task for the “cheap shot” of painting what would appear to be a growing number of Media Center sales as less about a gateway to the living room and more as a cheap add on to a regularly purchased PC.

My point here is that the power of Media Center has always been in my mind a tool to centralize, manage and control all of your digital media. I brought up the cheap shot to counter the argument that if people didn’t approve of MCE as is then why was it selling so well. It’s selling so well because folks like Gateway are now shipping their PCs with Media Center by default (notice the term “gateway” to the living room in my original sentence). I’m sure you saw Chris Lanier’s post earlier this month that noted the fact that 71% of the Media Centers sold in the week ending August 20 did not have a TV tuner. I think that a regular old new home office PC that happens to have MCE installed on it does not count as a true device to centralize all of your digital media. And I suspect that many of these non tuner sold devices will never have a tuner in them and that the adoption of Media Center as a true master of the living room should really only apply to units sold with TV tuners in them. TV after all still remains our primary consumed media.

Charlie also takes me to task for my criticism that Media Center (and really more accurately Windows Media Player as the driver of Media Center’s “My Music”) does not adequately handle large digital music libraries. Charlie writes “just because you don’t see it Right Now doesn’t mean we have ignored the feedback and aren’t working on the solution.” This is my point though Charlie. It’s been how many months (years?) since Sean Alexander called for people with large digital music libraries to consider submitting data on their libraries to Microsoft? And still the best we can get is an “I guarantee you will be pleased with the results.” Charlie, I really, really appreciate your saying that but the whole point of my rant was not that change won’t take place at all but the pace at which it takes place. This is what I got as the gist of Ballmerís quote for the executive realignment. And still I don’t have an expect to see this fixed by December of this year type of quote from you. While I can appreciate the secrecy and veil of product marketing that accompanies your process I see little harm
in saying something like expect this to be fixed by x date. My problem is not that I think Microsoft is ignoring feedback. My problem is with the speed at which product improvement takes place.

Charlie next takes issue with my criticism of the copy errors that I get with Windows Explorer. Charlie says he routinely copies massive amounts of data around his home network with nary a problem. Charlie I sure wish I had your set up. You asked for the specific error I get when trying to copy large batches of digital media files and that is part of the problem. It is almost always an unknown IO device error that is communicated. No additional information, no other feedback, and it typically happens an hour or so into a 6 hour copy job after I’ve already gone to bed and find the frustrating error as my treat the next morning. Ed Bott called my complaint “legitimate” back in May and I’ve had feedback from many others that have had similar problems with Explorer. Ed recommended that instead of Explorer I use FileSync. I’ve actually used FileSync for many years and do find it better than Explorer but even FileSync has problems with large copy batch jobs. How about this, how about program Windows Explorer (when it hits something that it doesn’t want to copy) to allow the user the option to skip that file and move on with the large batch copy job. This way the one or two files where I have a problem don’t jeopardize an entire six hour copy job.

I too should try Microsoft Sync Toy. Perhaps this will help. I’m also optimistic that Vista will fix this problem but just because you don’t have this problem doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist and is not a problem for me and many others. It might also help if rather than an unknown I/O device error I actually got an error that provided me more information. If Windows Explorer didn’t suck at problems like this there would be no need for Ed Bott, others and myself to turn to FileSync in the first place.

Charlie, you also take me to task for not contacting you privately about these concerns but taking them to my blog instead. You are right. I did not email you privately about these concerns, nor did I call you, IM you, or Skype you. Good point but actually I prefer blogging as a form of communication typically over private correspondence. I find it more effective, companies more responsive, and think that everyone should together be able to share in the information publicly.

But Charlie, you and many on the Microsoft team have known these as my concerns with regards to the Media Center product for a long time. Every item in my rant has been addressed by me on my blog in one way, shape or form in the past. In fact many of them have been blogged to DEATH on my blog in the past. I don’t think my criticisms of the Media Center product for not supporting HDTV or the problems with large media libraries, or my problems with Explorer are new to you or to others on the Media Center team. I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you’ve missed all of my previous blog posts on items in my rant but I find it surprising that these opinions of mine would come as a surprise to you. My review of the last MCE build was Slashdotted and it’s central criticism was no native cable or satellite HDTV support. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise to you.

While I can appreciate that you disclose stuff about future versions of your products all the time I don’t think that any of the items in my rant really have been concretely disclosed in the past. Part of my frustration lies in the fact that I really don’t see what “marketing” advantage Microsoft hopes to achieve by hiding the date when we might have native cable HDTV support for instance.

Cinema Now offering HDTV content? Charlie, that’s laughable. You and I both know what we are after there and it is not something that I can watch for free on HD Discovery on my HDTV TiVo right now.

Let’s see Online Spotlight kick it up a notch. Give the people what they want. Don’t bring us crap like Gallery Player (great I can pay 15 bucks and get 15 public domain paintings on my Media Center). Bring us the hottest content out there. Yes, bring us Flickr. And yes open up the Internet Archive in new and compelling ways to the living room. Even if you or they don’t make a dime on it do it anyways because content is king and content will sell your product and everywhere you can find compelling content you should aggregate it to Media Center. And yes, yes, I know that this is NOT what you guys do. You guys build platforms, etc. Yes I know all that already. But do it through MSN or find another way but Online Spotlight is never going to survive on Gallery Player and AOL Music on Demand and some very limited content from NPR. Ugh. Reuters? Boring. Really, really, really boring.

My points above most of all Charlie revolve not around the IF part of them being developed but the WHEN part of them being developed. My original rant was in response to a quote by Ballmer saying he was going to speed things up around your shop. That’s what I really want to see. I want to see a nimble Microsoft hot on the heels of digital media fashion and trends pushing fantastic and fantastically presented content to me through my Media Center PC.

And I can’t tell you how exciting it is to me to see you address your concerns and criticisms about my rant on your blog. Now that IS communication. I know it’s a pain in the ass but this is exactly what we need more of. Tell me you can’t tell me but at least that is something. Hopefully we get more but this communication really is valuable and key.

I really do appreciate your feedback and especially realize how very precious and valuable it is given how busy you and the rest of the Media Center team are. And I think you do know that deep down my heart is with you, your product and your team as I’ve latched on to this product and see it as something of a personal media deliverance machine of epic proportion. And please excuse what are my many errors and chalk much of what I write up as more emotion than fact. You are far closer to the product than I am.

I do appreciate your interview from before and will try to engage you privately about some of these items in the future but I still do believe that we all also benefit from a more public forum.

Sorry for an especially lengthy response and also sorry in advance for any follow up to this as Iím leaving tomorrow for vacation in Yosemite and wonít be back until next week. You are indeed a good friend Charlie.

Update: Matt Goyer responded on my complaint with regards to Media Center’s poor handling of large digital libraries today with a direct reference to a fix in Vista. Stay tuned for more on this. I think relief may be just around the corner and expect to do a little testing on this soon.

Also Charlie responded as well this morning saying that he’s going to address some of my concerns outlined in this post in the next few days.

I have to say I’m a little overwhelmed by all the love coming out of Redmond today. The fact that these problems are being addressed though is huge and the transparency seen today really sets Microsoft apart for their responsiveness. If I didn’t know any better I’d think that everyone at Microsoft had recently attended some special Robert Scoble seminar on how to handle a blogger.

I’m off to Yosemite for vacation but look forward to blogging more about this in the near future.