The Death of Media Center & What Might Have Been

Manufacturer: PC Perspective

No Longer the Media Center of Attention

Gabe Aul, of Microsoft's Windows Insiders program, has confirmed on Twitter that Windows 10 will drop support for Windows Media Center due to a decline in usage. This is not surprising news as Microsoft has been deprecating the Media Center application for a while now. In Windows 8.x, the application required both the “Pro” SKU of the operating system, and then users needed to install an optional add-on above and beyond that. The Media Center Pack cost $10 over the price of Windows 8.x Pro unless you claimed a free license in the promotional period surrounding Windows 8's launch.

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While Media Center has been officially abandoned, its influence on the industry (and vice versa) is an interesting story. For a time, it looked like Microsoft had bigger plans that were killed by outside factors and other companies seem to be eying the money that Microsoft left on the table.

There will be some speculation here.

We could go back to the days of WebTV, but we won't. All you need to know is that Microsoft lusted over the living room for years. Windows owned the office and PC gaming was taking off with strong titles (and technologies) from Blizzard, Epic, iD, Valve, and others. DirectX was beloved by developers, which led to the original Xbox. Their console did not get a lot of traction, but they respected it as a first-generation product that was trying to acquire a foothold late in a console generation. Financially, the first Xbox would cost Microsoft almost four billion dollars more than it made.

At the same time, Microsoft was preparing Windows to enter the living room. This was the company's power house and it acquired significant marketshare wherever it went, due to its ease of development and its never-ending supply of OEMs, even if the interface itself was subpar. Their first attempt at bringing Windows to the living room was Windows XP Media Center Edition. This spin-off of Windows XP could only be acquired by OEMs to integrate into home theater PCs (HTPCs). The vision was interesting, using OEM competition to rapidly prototype what users actually want in a PC attached to a TV.

This leads us to Windows Vista, which is where Media Center came together while the OS fell apart.

Read on to see how Halo 2 for Windows Vista was almost the prototype for PC gaming.

Windows Media Center as a DirectX Box

In May 2007, Microsoft launched their “Games for Windows - Live” initiative with Halo 2 Vista. Games for Windows was a certification program for video games that provided branding power in exchange aligning with Microsoft's vision for PC gaming. It was not all sunshine and rainbows, including attempts to neuter the mod community because Microsoft was afraid of adult or malicious content, but there were a few positive features of note too.

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Image Credit: IGN

Media Center was involved in Games for Windows in three ways. First and most blatant, to receive Games for Windows certification, a game must support being launched by Media Center (and Games Explorer). Second, the game must be compatible with Xbox 360 peripherals, which implies that the game is comfortable to play on a couch. Third, and most interesting, was the Tray and Play feature. Tray and Play allows a game to be launched without waiting for installation to complete. One of the complaints about PC gaming at the time was that, unlike a console, you needed to wait for upwards of a half hour before the game you purchased is actually available. Halo 2 Vista could be played while installation occurred in the background, eliminating this delay. You could imagine how useful this would be for a TV-connected PC.

At the same time, Windows Vista was a miserable failure in the eyes of consumers. The Xbox 360 on the other hand, despite its love of spontaneous, glorious death, was a huge marketing success.

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So the momentum swung in the opposite direction. The Windows development team had its top replaced with Steven Sinofsky and Jon DeVann, who polished Vista into Windows 7 before immediately going to work on the operating system's future. That future was not in the living room. Mobile computing exploded and they wanted to re-invent Windows to attack the phone and tablet market. Games for Windows was rolled into Xbox -- not the other way around.

Lastly, Microsoft wanted to become a devices and services company. Media Center, as a platform for OEMs to use for HTPCs, opposes this vision. Xbox, on the other hand, embodies it.

Gabe Newell Eyes Microsoft's Abandoned Lunch

Valve Software, known for making games with exactly one full sequel, is also known for the highly successful Steam platform. I believe that they noticed two things in the industry. First, Windows Store is scary. Second, I believe they saw the same potential of Vista-era Media Center that I did. They are not as big as Microsoft, which means slow and careful movement, but their announcements point towards Steam as a unified media service for OEMs to make HTPCs out of. Valve doesn't really seem to care whether the Steam Client or SteamOS is used; actually, this choice gives OEMs another variable to fiddle with in their prototypes.

Valve provides the platform, while third-parties fight to secure their place in the details.

Steam has also been expanding into your hub for all content and even a few services. Software has been introduced alongside games, and a few movies are being mixed in as well. Gabe Newell has expressed his desire to let families own and access all of their content, regardless of what it is and where it may be. Their stance is that siloed content is bad for everyone involved, and they want to leverage openness to win.

Meanwhile, Valve has been expanding into AR, VR, and wearable computing efforts right alongside Apple, Google, and Microsoft. All four also have their fingers in the living room, streaming content, and even mobile (with the Steam App). While they all come from a different starting point, and each has unique constraints, every one of them seems to find value in all markets. It's like they see them as a single market with a not-obvious link...

It all comes back to Windows Media Center. It was a vision of the PC for everything.

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May 8, 2015 | 07:26 PM - Posted by collie

I used to use Windows Media Center because it was the best way to use a TV card in windows 7, a tv card atached to an antena was important to me for the LONGEST time but I dont even have that anymore, even coronation street is on the CBC.CA

May 8, 2015 | 08:12 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

Yeah, TV tuning and DVD playback are the two applications that I've heard Media Center actually used for in the real world.

May 8, 2015 | 08:48 PM - Posted by collie

made a pretty good dvr too

May 10, 2015 | 12:00 AM - Posted by BillDStrong (not verified)

I used it to play Netflix through the Xbox 360 cause I'm cheap, and could avoid paying for Xbox Live. Now my step-brother uses has an Xbox One, and Xbox Live, and I'm still cheap so I use his account.

May 9, 2015 | 08:04 PM - Posted by Jaymondo (not verified)

My God you guys what corrie over there....

May 9, 2015 | 11:10 PM - Posted by collie

Canadians do, well some Canadians do

May 8, 2015 | 08:12 PM - Posted by Adam (not verified)

We gave up Media Center several years ago for Plex and Roku but I do miss it from time to time. At one point we had a full Windows 7 MC server and 4 Xbox 360 clients in the house.

No monthly fees and the ability to run 13 CableCARD tuners? Yep. Cable companies still haven't caught up.

May 9, 2015 | 02:19 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

Yeah. Microsoft had a good product at the time, especially if they would have added a few more waves.

May 8, 2015 | 09:28 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.

May 8, 2015 | 10:02 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

Also known as Nihilism vs Denihilism. Enjoy Arby's.

May 9, 2015 | 08:13 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Maybe they should look at how XBMC/Kodi is being embraced by the community & the wonderful ways it can be used?

May 9, 2015 | 12:02 PM - Posted by camberry

I first saw WMC running on my friends XP machine in 2004 and I was immediately smitten. It was easily head and shoulder better than any other DVR out there. I bought my own copy of XP WMC, and I have been using it ever since (even today with my HDHomerun using OTA). Honestly, it is still better than most software DVR's and kicks the crap out of cable TV DVRs even today.

Sigh... well let's hope this will be a good replacement.

May 9, 2015 | 12:13 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

WMC is the best DVR I have ever used. It's fast and it's easy enough my wife can use it.

May 9, 2015 | 12:59 PM - Posted by collie

"it's easy enough my wife can use it" that's funny. I had the same situation with my Beloved once upon a time, and when I think about it its actually amassing how much she has learned in the past 15 years. The secret is, (or what I did eventually after failing and being a total dick) answer questions like a friend instead of instructing (like a dick), and everyone needs to remember there is nothing you cant fix, worst case scenario you get the joy of buildin a new rig to replace the brick. I'm not saying anything in particular about you or your situation, I just wanted to give some respect the my lady love, of all the "Normals" I know she is the most respectful and appreciative of the technology, and I think that's pretty cool!

May 9, 2015 | 01:09 PM - Posted by JBalcius (not verified)

It's a shame to see it go. I have been using it for years and currently use it on 8.1 w/ the HDHomerun w/ cable card.

It's really easy to use, as mentioned. Even my dad, who can't even figure out how to reboot a PC without help, can use it to watch TV.

For now, I'm just going to have to stick with the current solution. In a couple of years I'll see what Kodi and the HDHomerun project looks like and revisit.

May 9, 2015 | 02:00 PM - Posted by collie

actually you bring up a damb good point, does that mean that windows 10 will not have any native tv-tuner suport at all? I've seen loads of usb-tv dongles that dont come with software it's just assumed you will use media-center.

May 10, 2015 | 12:03 AM - Posted by BillDStrong (not verified)

Those just require device drivers, and Microsoft isn't going to stop manufacturers from supporting nay hardware on their platform. Now, will you have drivers out of the box? Probably not. But who knows.

May 9, 2015 | 02:59 PM - Posted by chizow (not verified)

Yes, Silicon Dust HD HomeRun CableCard tuner has been amazing for the last 4 years or so. Its paid itself off 10 fold as I went from 4 HD tuner/DVRs down to 1 (saving $60 per month). Now I'll have to keep those PCs as Win7 and look into another solution for the Premium channels on me and wife's main gaming PCs as those will need to be upgraded to Win10 for DX12 for sure.

I am going to have to look at the Kickstarter program, but there's still too many question marks and holes in support. Main thing for me is iOS is still a stretch goal. We recently went back to iPhone 6/Plus so iOS is important to me again....

May 9, 2015 | 02:37 PM - Posted by mAxius

fear not all features will be integrated into the xbone

May 9, 2015 | 03:53 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I suspect the reason it was dropped was because there was a lot of baggage from old media center. If you wanted to use it as a dvr, it would need to support the old ms-dvr file format unless they dropped legacy support for old tuners (and that used the old mpeg2 format which I believe requires a license, thus the high price for all DVD player applications) or move to another codec that's already bundled with Windows, which would mean different hardware. If you add in the whole cablecard fiasco, on-demand streaming, and you see that WMC as a product is kind of dead. They would be forced to make a different branded product (more like XBMC/Kodi) so that there's no continuity with WMC. I loved WMC while it mattered, I had tweaked it to handle 6 adaptec tuners and capturing every show i cared about, had a couple extenders, but it was utilizing 2GB/hour per channel. Now I just stream like everyone else.

May 9, 2015 | 05:42 PM - Posted by -- (not verified)

as long as windows still supports cable cards and they still have the software, they don't really need a "media center" interface now.... the tiles fit TV usage perfectly

May 9, 2015 | 09:03 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

It's an interesting thought, particularly with a motion controller of some sort.

May 10, 2015 | 12:21 PM - Posted by -- (not verified)

its kinda what they do on the xbox with tiles... so it fits perfectly now.

they make nice little wifi keyboard with a trackpad...etc. windows and PEOPLE are finally ready for windows on their TV. I think the media center interface was really for people that ONLY wanted to use a remote and nothing more... it was back in the early 00's nobody would think to use a keyboard and mouse in front of their TVs.

MS was ahead..just like with tablets but people weren't ready for it... now with smart TVs, all these little windows HDMI devices etc people are probably finally ready to such a thing... and the tiles interface works perfect for a sit back on the couch viewing.

people and perception has probably finally caught up.

I LOVEEEEEEEE media center, but as long as windows keeps supporting and doing everything it does.. just without that interface.. im fine with it now. We've reached a middle ground.

May 9, 2015 | 05:48 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I use WMC (with My Movies) most days, for the sofa surfer it still has the best interface. Kodi is good but not quiet as good as WMC.

It would be great if MS gave the source code away to allow it to continue afterwards. But in meantime I will not be updating from W8.1 to W10

May 9, 2015 | 08:56 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

Yeah, an open source, user-space version of Windows Media Center would be nice.

May 9, 2015 | 08:02 PM - Posted by Jaymondo (not verified)

I still have four Windows 8.1 media center Pcs in my house, I am very annoyed that its being dropped. In fact, all four of those machines will NOT be upgraded to Windows 10 because of the lack of MCE. In fact they will stay on 8.1 until Microsoft withdraws the EPG. Its obvious that Microsoft planned for the Xbone to take over the living room. It never happened, and never will.

May 10, 2015 | 12:07 AM - Posted by BillDStrong (not verified)

It might be possible to use the Windows 8.1 version of Media Center on Windows 10, since the code base is pretty close. I don't know how long that would last, though.

May 9, 2015 | 08:57 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Started planning my first HTPC build a couple of weeks ago so thank you for posting this. Not really sure if I want to use something that won't be getting any updates so will start looking at other options. Do people like Kodi? What ever I choose it needs to run on Windows.

May 9, 2015 | 09:10 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

Oh, there's numerous options for HTPC software. This editorial was mostly about its history and the potential, alternate future we might have had.

May 9, 2015 | 09:10 PM - Posted by hosko

Kodi on Windows works great. I use to run Media Centre but I find Kodi to be very good. Depending what you want to do it does involve some messing under the hood.

For instance I want the same database to be accessed from multiple computers in the house so I have switched to an SQL database. Also if you want PVR capabilities Kodi is a front end, you'll need a backend service, I use MediaPortal also free.

Having said that I have a main windows box with 4 x 4tb Hdds connected to a cable box and every other TV in the house has a RasPi 2 strapped to the back and if I watch part of a show in the bedroom and go to the living room I can pick up where I left off.

Kodi is great, the price is even better and the community is extremely helpful.

May 10, 2015 | 12:54 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Windows Media Center (at least before Windows 8) had its own SKU. This made it extremely difficult to fix computers running Media Center. Regular Windows discs would not work with MCE computers. Plus, the people who had MCE computers I did work for never even used the MCE features. What a pain in the behind. It would have made much more sense if Microsoft had just added MCE to standard Windows but kept the same SKU. It's not like Microsoft ever needed a reason to add more SKUs to Windows.

May 10, 2015 | 01:22 PM - Posted by Kingkookaluke (not verified)

Great article Scott! The funny thing is that I have several episodes of the first and second seasons of Ghost Hunters on one of my hard drives that I'll never be able to play on my primary system.

I'm pretty sure that if you used MC as a dvr the titles would expire after a length of time anyway.

May 10, 2015 | 05:07 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

Thanks for the compliments!

That's actually a good point. You'd think there would be a way to transcode that stuff...

May 10, 2015 | 11:02 PM - Posted by Ben Haube (not verified)

I used to use Windows Media Center on a HTPC as a cable box. I had a cable tuner with 4 cable cards inserted so I could record 3 shows and watch another. This is much better than any box being offered at the time by Comcast, and the quality of the software experience was much better too.

Now, I don't need that setup anymore, but it definitely worked well in its time with Vista then Win 7. RIP WMC!

May 11, 2015 | 09:40 AM - Posted by Ken M (not verified)

I also use Silicon Dust HD Homerun Prime with a cable card and I don't know if there is any other platform that will show and DVR DRM encumbered content. Unfortunatly where I live Time Warner cable encumbers all cable delivered content with DRM..

It would be nice to be able to view this with Kodi but I don't know of any other group that has been able to afford to pay the freight to get approved to play and record DRM enabled cable content.

Are there any other options?

May 11, 2015 | 11:42 AM - Posted by Gunderman456 (not verified)

M$ can spin it anyway they want. They are removing it because of low use?

So why is M$ just now promoting it for the XBox One? It seems like they are trying to bolster the XBox One and make the Windows Media Player exclusive to that platform.

Anyone with an inclining should be wise to this deception.

May 11, 2015 | 01:04 PM - Posted by Doug C (not verified)

MS-Win 7 w/ WMC is the best platform to integrate & serve my home media needs – HD-TV, Photos & Music. I have a 2007 era Intel® Core™2 Duo Processor E6600 system that had gone through many upgrades that chugs along just fine (with upgrades along the way that included memory, case, HDD’s, SSD, Video Cards, power supply & even using backup storage on a Core i3 MS- WHS-2011 computer – another MS killed system). That system has 4 OTA tuners grabbing local content & Sillicon Dust HD- Homerun Prime w/ 3 Cable Card Tuners fed from Verizon FiOS that rocks. Combined w/ a digital photo library of 80k JPEG’s that started back in 2000 [with the advent of affordable digital cameras] & 24k + & counting MP3 collection – this is a core portion of my home media wants & needs. I can get my Netfix fix and have utilized this system to access iTunes movies also. The flexibility of the PC has reigned for a long time that even supports syncing to my Apple products – iPhones & iPads. I have other Win7 PC’s that have WMC & they can all access the Homerun Prime Tuners & whatever I have recorded around the house. My current home media needs are all satisfied.
I had hoped to keep this system’s reign going for more years by just adding a Nvidia 960 based card that does have an HDMI 2.o output (great smooth Fast Forward TV playback) that I had hoped would take me past HD & into UHD broadcast playback, but with MS slowly killing WMC – I guess that I will have to see who, what & when will there be some compelling system or software & hardware to go to in the future, wherever that may lead……. Maybe I can keep going till I can’t find an EPG source (will someone provide a cost effective one when MS stops providing one?) or will some got-to-have feature come along soon that will force me to add another ‘box’ to my media center? Money may be the factor that keeps me searching for the best way to access my local content & view what the world also provides.

May 11, 2015 | 03:23 PM - Posted by BBMan (not verified)

To the dust heap of the All-in-Wonder.

May 11, 2015 | 04:04 PM - Posted by semiconductorslave

Funny how WMC was included in Vista and 7 Home Premium for free (and other versions), then they link it to Windows 8 Pro version and charge another $10 for it, then say they are dropping support for it due to decline in usage. Making it free would probably increase usage.
I am still using Windows 7 for my HTPC cause if I upgrade to 8 so that I can watch Netflix with 5.1 surround (using the Netflix App) I would have to pay for the pro pack upgrade (using my windows 8 that I own).
Maybe its time to go back to MythDora :)

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