I'll no doubt be savaged for praising a Microsoft product, but my favorite technology of the week is our Windows Media Center PC. We resisted a DVR for years because we hardly watch any television, but as the kids got older and more numerous we found ourselves putting them in front of the TV more often to have a few moments to ourselves. Random cartoons are just awful, so we finally had a good reason to get a DVR: to limit the kids to just the TV that's worth watching.
As it happened, my wife needed a new PC. We realized that by picking
one with Media Center 2005 pre-installed we could get a DVR essentially
for free (or, to be precise, $150 extra to add a dual-tuner TV card and
a remote control to the configuration). Anti-DRM zealots who think we should have home-brewed our own open-source DVR instead are invited to make this case to my wife.
The cool thing about the latest (2005) version of Windows Media Center is that it can run in the background of a regular PC. So as far as my wife is concerned, it's just her standard workhorse PC, sitting in the study. But while she's doing email and such, it's recording TV on a 400 gig hard drive or streaming it to TVs around the house. Since we already had the cable TV line coming to the study for the cable modem, installing the PC was simply a matter of a Radio Shack adapter that split the coax into three--one to the cable modem and one to each of the PC's twin tuners.
The other cool thing about Media Center 2005 is the way it works with "extenders", which are set-top boxes that you place next to each TV you want connected to the DVR. This allows the Media Center to act as a central media server for the whole house, giving any TV simultaneous access to the same recorded content. We already had an Xbox on one TV, so turning that into an extender just required inserting a disk. We bought a wireless Linksys extender for the other TV.
For us, Media Centers have five big advantages over traditional DVRs, including TiVo.
- No monthly fees.
- Centralized storage means that all TVs around the house have instant access to the same content.
- Unlimited storage capacity.
- Can stream all the other media on your PC to any TV, including music and home videos.
- By DVR standards, it's a relatively open platform (certainly compared to the DVRs offered by your cable company), and there are an increasing number of plug-ins that expand its features.
There are, to be fair, a few disadvantages, too. It's a Windows PC,
so you have to restart it once in a while. If you do that while the
kids are watching television upstairs, they're going to yelp. And
because it's a PC that's running all sorts of other software, there is
the risk you'll install something funky that messes things up. I put in
a new sound card and the DVR stopped recording TV sound until I undid
most of the changes. Finally, the Linksys extender, which is the only
hardware extender available and feels a bit V1.0, freezes every now and
then and has to be restarted.
As with our Roomba, there's a parenting strategy angle, too. The kids, having grown up with computers, are desperate to control their screen experience. So in exchange for the giving the two oldest (6 and 8) the right to use the remote control, they are required to skip all ads. And, amazingly, they do (along with replaying the fart jokes in the show, skipping the parts with boring singing and otherwise being kids).
It appears that, after a slow start, Media Center PCs are finally taking off and now account for 43% of desktop PCs sold in retail
(although less than a third of them have TV tuners). Microsoft is
promoting it by eliminating the price premium over the regular Windows
XP home edition. As
a result, you can now find Media Center PCs for less than $900. It's
also going to be built into the default home version of Windows Vista,
the next major Microsoft OS. And it's at the core of Intel's new Digital Home strategy. Analysts expect Media Center PCs to reach US sales of more than 20m a year by 2007, and some are rather hyperbolically predicting that it will be "next year's iPod".
Finally, there's a strong Long Tail angle to the Media Center. It
is, at its core, a platform for unlimited-choice TV. It connects the Internet
to the TV screens around your house via a simple, TiVo-like interface. Right now, most of the
video content comes over the broadcast network, is cached on your PC, and then
streamed over your home network. But that content can just as easily
come from anywhere on the net, and independent video marketplaces such as Brightcove and Akimbo are planning to release their services as Media Center plug-ins to deliver just that.
The broadcast era has peaked and the on-demand era is beginning. The
cable and telephone companies are betting this means more
video-on-demand over their proprietary networks, which may indeed be
the case for a while. But I'm betting that the Web model--with the link
between content and the pipes that delivers it severed once and for
all--will ultimately prevail. And a Media Center PC is the closest
thing to that you can find today. It's a glimpse of the future.