Microsoft has a second chance to win the living room battle

Deb Littlejohn Shinder thinks Microsoft should takes steps now to turn the Xbox brand into much more than just a way to play games.

Don't blow it this time!

There has been a great deal of discussion in the tech press recently about the "battle for the living room," although some think it's already been won. Others disagree, opining that no company has yet come up with the magic formula to integrate TV, music, web, and gaming seamlessly and affordably.

Interestingly, the Forbes article linked above, written in September 2010, relegated Microsoft to "and others" status on the digital living room battlefield, whereas the Business Insider piece, penned at the close of 2011, declared Microsoft the winner. What happened in between? In a word, Kinect.

There's more to it than motion

There's no disputing that Kinect has been a wildly successful product since its release in November 2010. It got into the Guiness Book of World Records as the "fastest-selling consumer electronics device" when it sold 8 million units within 60 days after release (by comparison, it took 80 days for the "best-selling" iPad to rack up 3 million sales). Kinect played a big role in Microsoft's increased earnings at the end of last year, to such an extent that some pundits have declared Kinect to be Microsoft's savior.

Kinect is, in fact (in the words of Steve Jobs) a "magical and revolutionary" product. But it's only one piece of the living room puzzle, and Microsoft needs to realize it and understand that what most consumers want is not a bunch of cool apps on their TVs, but a seamless, integrated entertainment experience. Giving them that is going to require both making their own software and hardware components work together without hiccups and working closely with partners.

Xbox with Kinect is one solution for the living room, but it can't be the only one. Some people will always view Xbox as a gaming console, something for "the kids." To truly take over the living room, I believe Microsoft will need to get the technology built into the TVs themselves.

Easy does it

At the moment, the living room battlefield seems pretty messy to me. It's strewn with the bodies of technologies that don't work, or sort of work, or work after a steep learning curve. I have a Sharp Aquos "smart" TV. Its specs list all sorts of impressive capabilities. It has "apps" -- Netflix, Blockbuster, Vudu, Napster, CinemaNow, Alphaline Entertainment, Sharp's own AquosNet. It supports both Ethernet and Wi-Fi networking and has USB ports -- it is in essence a specialized computer.

The only problem is that it's a pain to use. Several of the apps don't work at all. When you try to run them, you get a message that a software update is available. When you try to update, you get a message that the update failed. When you try to run the update anyway, you get a message that you can't run it until you update.

Those apps that do work are slow and clunky. Content is limited. There's a web browser -- sort of. It takes you to the Aquos console, which is a portal to services from Sharp and some of its partners. I can visit, NBC Sports, Picasa, Access Hollywood, and view stock quotes, astrology, and horoscopes. You can also install (through the Vudu app, which is hardly intuitive) Facebook, Twitter, and a handful of other apps that you can view in a slow and ugly interface. Ho hum. Sharp makes beautiful HDTVs. In my experience, they make really lousy software for them.

So even though we have three "smart" TVs in the house, we almost never use their "smart" features. Instead, we've attached them all to LAN-connected Windows 7 PCs, and when we want to "get smart" on the big screens, we just switch the input option over to the PC, where we can play our music, watch TV (live or recorded via the HD Homerun Prime CableCARD tuner that's shared on the network), surf the web with a real web browser of our choice, and input information with a regular wireless keyboard instead of picking out one letter at a time on a television remote control.

TV vendors badly need a standardized, easy-to-use, familiar software interface they can install on their TVs. Microsoft could be the company to make that. As a matter of fact, they've done it before. And therein lies the dilemma.

Ahead of its time?

Microsoft released Windows Media Center in 2002, as a special edition of Windows XP. It was pretty rudimentary, but they continued to develop it so that by the time it was included in Windows Vista Home Premium and Ultimate editions, it was a robust entertainment application. In Windows 7, Microsoft added WMC to the Professional and Enterprise editions, as well (but gave business network admins an easy way to disable it).

WMC has long had a small but very avid fan base, spawning web sites such as The Green Button to provide community support for WMC users. At one point, there were a few television sets built with WMC baked in, but they quickly disappeared from the market. WMC has always suffered from Microsoft's lack of consumer marketing expertise and finesse.

I've had people over to the house who thought of themselves as consummate techies, totally familiar with the latest Microsoft operating system, but when I showed them our WMC setup and what it would do, they were shocked. They had no idea. And if they didn't know, the average consumer doesn't have a clue.

There were two big obstacles to mainstream adoption of WMC, though, even if we'd been able to get the word out. The first Microsoft had no control over: DRM on HD content and the resistance of the cable companies to providing CableCARDs to their customers because they wanted those customers to use/pay for their own digital set-top boxes at a much higher rental rate than that of the cards (the only reason they offer them at all is because the FCC requires it, but most don't advertise the availability. That requirement doesn't apply to satellite providers).

The other obstacle is the old ease-of-use bugaboo. Setting up WMC to function as a DVR (its overwhelmingly best feature) requires a little more technical savvy than most consumers have. First you need a tuner, which means you have to have a tuner card installed in the computer or a network tuner like the HD Homerun Prime. Your cable company is unlikely to be helpful, so you're on your own.

It took us a couple of days to get the CableCARD working, and my husband and I are both hardcore WMC users. Again, part of this is the content providers' fault, but Microsoft could have made the setup process easier and more informative, too. People like us will fiddle with it until we get it working and then relish the sense of accomplishment. Consumers will give up in frustration if it's not total "plug and play," and vow never to try that product again.

And that's why, according to Steven Sinofsky, only 6 percent of Windows 7 users used WMC during a tracking period in July 2011.

The wrong thing to do

Because of those numbers, Microsoft has apparently stopped working on development of WMC. Sinofsky promised that it will be in the final release of Windows 8, and it's there in the consumer preview (after its absence from the developer preview caused a lot of consternation in some circles). It works fine on my Windows 8 system with the HD Homerun Prime, but there's nothing new; it's the same old WMC we had in Windows 7. Not that that's a bad thing.

My fear is that the statistics will lead Microsoft to believe that the whole WMC idea is a loser with consumers, and eventually drop it altogether. That would be a mistake. We've seen other great ideas fail to catch on for a long time (tablets would be a prime example) and then suddenly catch fire. WMC is a wonderful technology; it just needs some fine-tuning to become a key component in the living room takeover.

The right thing to do

Much as it pains me to say it, the solution might be as simple as separating WMC from Windows. It's the opposite approach to what's going on with Microsoft's enterprise products, where the features and functionality of separate server solutions such as TMG and UAG are now being blended into the Windows Server operating system. What works best for business is often not what works best for consumers.

Techies like me love the way it's implemented now, and don't mind hooking up a full-fledged computer to every TV set. Consumers want integration. Put WMC into the Xbox. Build it into TVs. Make it easily accessible from phones and tablets. Market it as an alternative to the cable company's clunky DVR. Truly combine the WMC software with the Xbox software. Use Kinect gestures to control WMC (which can already be done). Build in social networking so you can share your thoughts on the TV program you're watching or the song you're listening to on Facebook or Twitter, right from the WMC/Xbox interface. Incorporate your Xbox avatar to represent you in those social forums. The possibilities are endless -- and exciting.

The name isn't important. You don't have to call it Windows Media Center; in fact, you probably shouldn't. Build on the popularity of the Xbox and/or Kinect brand names. Just "repurpose" the technology.

If not for the DRM and ease-of-use obstacles, along with the marketing issue, I believe Microsoft could have become a dominant player in home entertainment years ago. Unfortunately, it was bad timing for a great product (WMC). Now they have a second chance to win this living room (and bedroom and kitchen and patio) battle -- not by abandoning WMC and starting over but by using that technology to turn the Xbox brand into much, much more than just a way to play games.

By Deb Shinder

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...