Media Center for Windows Deserves Some Respect

When I first was briefed on the Media Center edition of XP by Microsoft, I thought MCE was a pretty bad idea. A lot of my skepticism had to do with the market they claimed they were going after, namely college students in dorm rooms and yuppies living in cramped apartments with no room for both TVs and PCs. Of course, college students mostly buy laptops, and no matter where you live most folks don't watch TV on a small computer monitor from across the room. The short-term market were enthusiasts who understood the value of a DVR such as a TiVo.

Over time, Microsoft tried a few approaches with MCE – from extenders to allow you to view content on other TVs in the home over your network, to creating extender technology for Xbox (which is already hooked up to a TV set) – as well as working with a host of OEMs to create "living room" form factor home theater PCs. The result of these efforts was less than a stellar success and few vendors actively build home theater PCs; these days, if a consumer uses media center they're either an enthusiast or they've tripped over it by mistake trying to do something else. That's a shame, as MCE has evolved over time to become a great technology, one that few people even know exist.

With the advent of Windows 7, Media Center has gone through another refresh and the technology is really very good. I'm beginning to wonder if most consumers will ever realize the value of integration between the PC and the TV if they don't know enough about what's possible. We know consumers are interested in getting the content on their PCs over to their TVs but that's another story.

The fact is, Media Center in Windows 7 should be a hit. For example, one of the biggest problems with most consumer DVRs is that the content is locked. Want to watch in another room? Sorry, that will cost extra please. Want to take that TV show and watch it on your laptop? Sorry, not happening. Want to archive that show to something other than analog VHS tape? Sorry, can't do that. Even TiVo, which allows users to move some content from their TiVo box to the PC, does so at low resolution and over the home network, making for a slow and often frustrating process.

By contrast, MCE records shows, transcodes them in the background and makes it relatively easy to stream the content to a device like the Xbox 360, copy to a laptop for later viewing and even transfer to Windows phones and Zune media players. In addition, unlike most DVRs on the market, there's no additional monthly fee to use the technology and no need to purchase copies of TV shows that will only be viewed once.

The promise of MCE was that ALL my media could live on one box and I could then do what I wished with that content, moving it from screen to screen and device to device. MCE in Windows 7 delivers on a lot of that vision. Microsoft talks a lot these days about three screens and a cloud. MCE is actually a foundation technology that enables much of that "three screen" interaction to happen. MCE owners can stream content via WiFi to any computer in their home. They can get on a plane and take the latest episodes of their favorite TV shows on their laptops, phones or media players, or burn a copy of that old movie and keep the disc as an archive.

Is MCE perfect? No, not even in Windows 7. Is it the right product for the masses? Quite possibly, yes. Microsoft needs to think who the market for this version of MCE is, work to find ways of hiding more of the Windows UI for a total 10 foot experience and perhaps, in the future, even think of unbundling MCE from the rest of Windows.

For now, MCE is a compelling technology that appeals mostly to enthusiasts who are looking for more functionality than current DVR solutions can give them. It could be so much more.