More on the Media Center TV Pack

Earlier this week I wrote about Ben Drawbaugh’s hands-on look at the new Media Center TV Pack for Windows Vista Home Premium and Ultimate editions, formerly known by its codename, “Fiji.” (See Read all about the new Media Center TV features you can’t have, and also see Mary Jo Foley’s excellent coverage here and here.)

Today, in a post at The Green Button, Microsoft’s Ben Reed, Product Marketing Manager for Windows Media Center, confirmed most of the details in those posts, including this feature list:

The Windows Media Center TV Pack is primarily targeted at adding support for additional international broadcast standards including:

  • Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting – Terrestrial (ISDB-T) Digital television standard for Japan
  • Digital Video Broadcasting – Satellite (DVB-S) free-to-air satellite standards  in  Europe
  • Digital Video Broadcasting – Terrestrial (DVB-T) digital television with  improved user experience in Europe
  • ClearQAM (Unencrypted Digital Cable)in the United States
  • Interactive television with integrated Broadcast Markup language (BML) in Japan and Multimedia and Hypermedia information coding Expert Group (MHEG) (MHEG5) in Europe

He also confirmed that the update “does not include native support for subscription-based satellite tuners or the H.264 video standard.” The explanation is diplomatic, to say the least: “We test many features in beta releases, and optimize our feature set in the final code for the best user experience.”

So what does that mean? I wish Ben had been a little bit more forthright. My guess is that the unvarnished answer would sound something like this: We tested the crap out of the new satellite tuners and wrote code until our fingers were bleeding, and they just don’t work well enough for us to ship ’em. We’d rather take the hit for not releasing this product than put out a buggy product that makes your life miserable.

In fact, it’s hard for me to come up with any alternative scenario that makes sense. I know that Microsoft and DirecTV are dying to get satellite tuners into the market to compete with CableCARD-based products. The process should actually be easier with satellite companies, which have a single infrastructure to support, than it is for the cable industry with its thousands of local infrastructures, no two of which are alike. CableCARD devices haven’t exactly set the world on fire. Does Microsoft really need to launch a new product that doesn’t work as promised? Does Vista really need more bad reviews?

As for the decision to ship the new code only through OEMs, that sure sounds like the fallout from a design decision made early on. It’s a lot easier to test and support code on new, clean installations than it is to support thousands or even millions of unique upgrade configurations. The tendency of Media Center enthusiasts to push the envelopes of hardware, software, and codec support makes it even riskier for upgraders.

I’m willing to cut Microsoft a lot of slack in this case, although others in the Media Center community aren’t so sanguine. Chris Lanier calls Fiji a “mess” and predicts it will “go down in history as one of the worst coordinated projects to come out of Microsoft in a long time.” But I’m trying to figure out how they could possibly have done things differently. They ran a beta test program as quietly as possible, making no public promises or announcements along the way. Some features didn’t clear the quality bar, so they got cut from the final shipping product. I understand being disappointed in that result, but how do you change that without either (1) not testing at all or (2) shipping a buggy product?

20 thoughts on “More on the Media Center TV Pack

  1. Ed:

    You say that they didn’t make public promises or announcements, but what about the private announcements to beta testers that have still not been addressed? Given that I’m sure I’m still under an NDA, I will not go into full details just yet, but communication on the private beta side (I’m not talking public) has been nothing short of a disaster. I’m speaking from personal experience being a beta tester and even MVP as well as from my OEM contacts who have had an equally horrible experience on the communication side of things.

    Even these issues and the issues with the product in general, this release was one of Microsoft’s worst and by far the worst planned and executed Media Center release ever.

  2. As a developer, I can sympathize with having to deal with deadlines and feature cuts, but I have a slightly different opinion on this. For one thing, with no public announcement or promises, what kept them from cracking the whips for another few weeks and getting those other features in there, particularly the H.264? I have a hard time believing Microsoft can’t develop a DirectShow filter for an industry-standard codec. The other thing Microsoft needs to realize is that they are dealing with a largely enthusiast community here…we are frequently used to running “unsupported” configurations. If there is a mess with the configurations and testing costs, they need to learn to deal with it (they should have plenty of experience at this point). This should have been a paid upgrade ($50, maybe). Microsoft blew this, as they have so many other “decisions” in the past few years. If they are worried about stepping on the toes of Windows 7, why don’t they own up and say so? I am repeatedly amazed at how dense the product managers are at Microsoft; I am left to wonder, who’s steering this ship? Sorry for the rant.

  3. Chris, I wasn’t a beta tester, so I have no idea what anyone was or wasn’t told. I do know that no promises were made to the general public, which outnumbers beta testers by probably a million to 1. If they screwed up in communicating with beta testers, it sure wouldn’t be the first time. But I wasn’t there.

  4. Joe, “what kept them from cracking the whips for another few weeks and getting those other features in there, particularly the H.264” was the need to ship the product. If OEMs are going to have the product in time to install it for fourth-quarter sales, you have to ship it at some point and hold the missing features for the next release. Besides, what guarantee do you have in that case that the extra weeks will actually pay off?

    Ultimately, OEMs are the primary customers, and enthusiasts are a distant second. (I count myself in the latter category.) A small software company can and should cater to its enthusiasts, but Microsoft, for better or worse, has to serve OEMs that buy licenses by the millions.

  5. Ed,
    MS and DirecTV announced plans to work together two years ago, that is why people are disappointed.

    The fact is that beta testers were told that H.264 was too difficult to integrate in time for the July deadline. What I want to know is why the July Deadline was important to MS. I mean would the OEM’s really of been that annoyed that if it was delayed for H.264 support (and thus DirecTV)?

  6. Ben, I remember that announcement well. That was a big mistake and hasn’t been repeated. As for your question, “What I want to know is why the July Deadline was important to MS.” See my earlier answer about who Microsoft’s customers are. OEMs need code in August to integrate into machines for the Q4 selling season, which is the one that matters above all else.

  7. Ed:

    Given you were not on the beta I’d be interested to know why you are trying to back Microsoft on my statement about it being poorly coordinated? Being poorly coordinated doesn’t imply features that didn’t make the cut or them not releasing information until they are ready for it.

  8. Chris, where am I “backing Microsoft”? I wrote, “I’m trying to figure out how they could possibly have done things differently. ” And I’m writing that from the perspective of a customer of the end product. If you’re saying communication sucked in the beta program, that’s a completely different issue, and one that I can’t even begin to engage in with you, since I wasn’t on the beta and you say your NDA prohibits you from discussing it.

    Maybe I misunderstood what you wrote, but when you called Fiji a “mess,” I assumed you meant the final product.

  9. Fiji (the beta program) was a mess. TV Pack (the final product) is still a mess given the OEM only release and lack of needed features, but yes I was talking about the beta process and everything attached.

  10. I am probably a little late for this conversation, but I have a few cents to add.

    First, the decision to only release to OEM only, was a big mistake. If this was quality control, as they suggest, then I sure as heck wouldn’t trust OEM’s to handle it. These are the same companies that shipped out half baked products during the Vista launch, and acted like nothing was wrong when the consumers slammed Vista.

    Second, by limiting the add on, no matter how “minor” to the OEM’s you have essentially eliminated the small businesses that sell systems in numbers that would never reach OEM status, but are promoting the product.

    Third, by angering the enthusiast community, they have eseentialy shafted their best sales people. I don’t know of any enthusiast, myself included that doesn’t show off their gear and promote products to their family, friends, co-workers. If you don’t want to pay for advertisements and salespeople, you had better keep your supporters happy.

    Fourth, if the code was too buggy to ship to the masses, then don’t ship. Period. Scrap it and push it back until it is ready for Seven or Vista SP2.

    If Microsoft had treated this as an update then most of these PR problems would not exist. If this was an optional software download, then enthusiasts and system builders would download it and expect an update down the road for h.264 support and satelite tuners. Since it is only being released to the OEM’s the general public is feeling a little burnt.

    What really disturbs me is not so much the TV Pack not being available, but a trend I am seeing repeated over and over by Microsoft that is very favorable to OEM’s but screws over their enthusiast base. It took yelling, kicking, and screaming to have Microsft even release Vista SP 1 to the MSDN and Technet community at the same time as the OEM’s. I keep seeing Microsoft start to imitate Apple a little too much these days. If I wanted close minded secrets and general community shafting, I would definitely not be sitting here on a Vista machine. If Microsoft keeps doing this, they will be running off their best customers and promoters.

    There is nothing that I currently could use in TV Pack as it is released now. Although, if there was satellite support, I would really think about letting cable go since I am not allowed to install a Cable Card tuner by myself. I guess they are afraid I might nick my fingers plugging in the usb cable.

    Sorry about the rant, Ed.

  11. RL, please forgive my oversimplification of your rant, but it seems to nicely summarize the Fiji kerfuffle:

    “There is nothing that I currently could use in TV Pack as it is released now,” but “the decision to only release to OEM only, was a big mistake,” and I’m mad as hell that I can’t get it!

  12. If MS thinks that TV Pack and MC are for their OEM sales, they are making a big mistake and probably shouldn’t even be in the business. This product can be best handled by the custom installer for home theatre and the hard core computer audience that will find some way to make anything work.

    Front projector manufacturers have found this out and have a high end line that is only sold through customer installers. MS should look at this the same way. Put it in the hands of someone that can make it work and can support the user. Otherwise this is just going to be another windows tack on like Notepad.

  13. If q4 sales are important, isn’t it a rather bad move to make sure that we realy will hurt sales on the European market since many of us uses encrypted DVB-S or S-2. Therefore the cut of HD is a showstopper. The lack of encrypted support can be handled by card manufacturers but integrated support in MCE would benefit the market.

  14. This “Fiji mess” is just one more reason that I do not use Windows Media Center and why I do not recommend it for my clients. It is just too difficult to work with. There are too many issues, from CableLabs CableCARD certification, to screwed up changes like this. It has too many dead ends. It is not ready for prime time with the average computer user and probably never will be.

  15. Richard, I don’t understand. Microsoft didn’t release this update to the general public, only to OEMs who can install it properly. So how is it “screwed up”?

  16. Ed said: “Ultimately, OEMs are the primary customers, and enthusiasts are a distant second. (I count myself in the latter category.) A small software company can and should cater to its enthusiasts, but Microsoft, for better or worse, has to serve OEMs that buy licenses by the millions.”

    Exactly who do you think the customers are for those millions of licenses the OEMs buy? Support for MC has always been dismal, at best. M$ should either make it a standalone for-profit program and support it properly or get it out of the OS entirely. If there argument is that many users don’t even use it or even know it is there, then why is it it now included in every version of Vista above Basic? Support it or ditch it and let the 3rd party developers do it better.

  17. For MS, Dell (in my case), and ATI to have foisted this mess upon us in the first place is unfathomable. I have a Dual ATI DCT Dell machine that has never, ever worked properly. Tuners go in and out of recognition by VMC. VMC makes “corrupt recordings” on a weekly basis. Its hit or miss if the turners will work simultaneously. VMC is a disaster for CableCard, QAM, and analog. This should be a class action lawsuit against MS, ATI, and the OEMs.

    Outside of VMC I love Vista, its stable and enjoyable. But having the expense of Ultimate and $400 worth of tuners that sometimes get recognized by VMC is an utter piss off. Now MS has a new and “improved” version of VMC and those of us that bought in the beginning are getting screwed because we are not OEMs! Because we are not OEMs we are supposed to just live with this buggy piece of crap? Yeah its bunk and I am a heartbeat away from TIVO. I have been telling everyone I know not to invest in this garbage setup.

  18. Rod, based on your experience, I can understand your anger. However, it’s certainly not my experience. Our dual-CableCARD system has worked exceptionally well after we got past the initial setup. My wife hated our DirecTiVo with a passion. She loves the Media Center.

    If I were you, I would exercise my warranty rights with Dell. You should send a request to and explain your situation and see if you can get some support. Your system should work, period.

    More details in this blog post:

Comments are closed.