Microsoft Should Cut Windows Media Center from Windows 8

Feb 21, 2012 by

Yea I said it: Microsoft needs to remove Windows Media Center from Windows 8 and head down a new path. They need to burn that bridge, Indiana Jones with a machete style… Why Ben? Why would you publicly state something so outrageous and provoking on a Media Center focused site? Before you set Twitter aflame and curse Josh for signing a traitor on to the DMZ team, take a look at my eight reasons for wanting to ditch WMC for the new Windows 8 Start screen.

Developing for WMC is an Atrocity

You should congratulate Netflix, MyMovies and MediaBrowser for having successfully developed WMC UIs that work and look beautiful. Anyone who has seen MCML or looked at how many different files it takes just a get a basic WMC plugin knows that developing for this platform is a disaster at best. Eight different files using unique, unfriendly XML and .NET variant code are all it takes to make a WMC app with a button our two. Documentation for developers is relatively non-existent. This is why you don’t see lots of apps for Media Center, why it take forever to update the apps that are out there and why Media Center has not flourished like we all hoped it would.

Clearly no one on the Media Center team was listening when Balmer said “Developers! Developers! Developers!” You can have an Android app up on the entire Android platform with a single XML file and a Java file. WinRT is what all Media Center apps should be based on. HTML, JavaScipt, C#, C++, Silverlight. Done. Programmers, n00b and veteran, can understand and learn these languages easily. File structure is greatly simplified. As seen in the developer preview, Visual Studio 11 will have great WinRT UI WYSIWYG tools for Metro UI development. WinRT removes or lessens the barrier to developing great home theater applications, thus we could finally get the home theater support and app market we Microsoft fanatics all want and deserve.

Metro UI is WMC 2.0

The hubs and tiles of the Metro UI Windows 8 start screen respond to remote commands much like in Windows Media Center. Hubs and tiles are easily customizeable through a couple clicks of the mouse in the sub-menus of the Metro UI. There is no need to start a separate application when Windows starts, it is Windows already.

Today, Windows Media Center is pretty much uncustomiseable. If you install any new plugins, usually a new strip is created and eventually the whole system gets cluttered up. Yes, you can use Media Center Studio, an unsupported, crashy WYSIWIG editor for WMC. But that is for us hardcore Media Center fanatics, not the average Joe.

The Windows 8 Browser

You can have nearly the entire Internet at the buttons of your TV remote. Just hit the IE tile and up pops the Metro Internet Explorer. Now you can manage your streaming services, check your email or Twitter account, or pop up a YouTube video. The Win8 browser has its limits though. No support for plugins (not even Silverlight) will prohibit you from watching Netflix, VUDU or Amazon. Not to feer, that is what WinRT is for!

The Windows Store

Windows Media Center lacks a centralized location for managing, discovering and updating plugins. Yes, there is the Extras Gallery, but no one puts their apps there. Yes, the Digital Lifestyle had the right idea with their Made for Media Center app store, but it does not come pre-installed, it has no payment system for developers, and it is rarely updated. The Windows Store in Windows 8 comes pre-installed and provides a full-featured app store supported by Microsoft. This is where you will get your Netflix app and Your VUDU app and your Amazon Instant Video app and your MyMovies app. This is where you will get your à la carte movies and TV from Microsoft once they kill Zune.

Browsing Local and Network Media

Music, Videos, and Pictures are all represented as hubs in the Win8 Metro UI. However, we all know that MediaBrowser and MyMovies have much prettier UIs. There is no reason why they can’t build WinRT hubs that look beautiful and function in similar ways. If they could hack together MCML to build their rich interfaces, then doing an even better job with HTML, JavaScript and C# should be no problem.

Skype Integration

In 2011, Microsoft bought Skype in an attempt to either block others from gobbling it up or to gain some serious brand recognition in the teleconferencing market. Either way, it is inevitable that a robust Skype app will appear in the Windows Store on Windows 8. While there is a WMC plugin for Skype, a free native Windows application has to give the user a better experience.

Streaming Services

Streaming services are a primary function of home theater PCs. Netflix is already built into Windows Media Center. But what about VUDU, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, YouTube, iTunes and the soon-to-be Redbox/Verizon service? For that stuff, you either have to go through a browser or hack WMC to display an icon for a separate app that works with a streaming service. Ridiculous. Why not just replicate their HTML/JavaScript code from their websites into WinRT apps? Done. But why didn’t these companies make apps for Media Center? See my first point.

Angry Birds

You know Windows 8 is going to have Angry Birds. Playing Angry Birds on your TV with a remote is reason enough to go to Win8, right?  Can’t wait for an Angry Birds app? Play Angry Birds in the Win8 browser. But in all seriousness, gaming on a Win8 HTPC becomes easier because there is no blasting in and out of Media Center to get to games. There is no hack-job customizing needed. The tile just appears when you install the game.  Performance is not degraded because Media Center is still running in the background.

Calling All Developers

There are a few things that need to happen in order for the Metro UI to be properly used as a home theater interface. Whether Microsoft makes these improvements or a third party developer does, these need to happen:

  • The Live TV, Guide and Recorded TV functionality needs to be replicated into a WinRT Hub. This would not take the Media Center crew at Microsoft much time to make this transition. The code is there; it just needs to be retweaked for WinRT.
  • Adjust the on-screen keyboard to support a remote control.
  • Native support for DVD and Blu-ray. While this is a pipe dream, this is critical to a sustainable, low maintenance HTPC configuration.
  • A “Home Theater” mode for the Win8 Start screen. This reworks the hubs and tiles for media and TV viewing. Really, you would only need three hubs: TV, Streaming and Gaming.

In the end this is how we are going to get the HTPC interface we have always dreamed of. Think WinRT, not WMC.

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  • Anonymous

    I totally agree on this as this is exactly what I was thinking. Call the TV hub app “Windows TV” and let it access tuners and it would become an awesome modern experience.

  • Anonymous

    I love the word ‘Atrocity’.  This article just cut right through it and went straight to Godwins Law.  Not only is the post overly dramatic and full of hyperbole, but it’s flat wrong.  The Media Center interface that we have is beautiful and exchanging that for the colorful metro interface would be a mistake, plain and simple.
     
    A better use of the writers time would have been to give suggestions no how Microsoft could modify developing for Media Center to make is easier.  Microsofts strongest virtue has always been responding to developers, and it makes a lot more sense to maintain the WPF that MC is built on because it is beautiful, but streamline it in a way that MS has done for developers for years. 
     
    The suggestion has been made for a few years that MC should just be a silverlight app, and I think that still makes the most sense to streamline the WPF with the more standard silverlight development platform.
     
    One of my major problems with metro as MC is the wife acceptance factor.  I’ve spent 5 years getting my wife comfortable with Media Center and the interface and she likes it a whole lot, because it’s just Media Center, and nothing else, but you change that to Metro and it’s going to be littered with the other apps that you have on the PC that either run in the background or are otherwise not Media Center related.  I don’t need to see an icon for show analyzer user interface in my Media Center experience, it just runs in the background and I don’t have to worry about it.
     
    It’s always easy to look at the next pasture and admire what could be, but the fact is that change is not the same as progress.  Change always represents a whole new world of undiscovered problems.  Microsoft should stick with Media Center and do what they can to make it better for everyone.

  • Anonymous

    Why would the Start screen be cluttered? You can customize it to remove all of the things that you don’t want to appear. Also, Media Center plugins aren’t written in WPF. If they were we might actually see more plugins. Instead, they are written in MCML, which as Ben noted, is absolutely awful to develop in.

  • Anonymous

    I can’t address your Start screen question without an advance on a book deal first.

    WPF is part of silverlight then?  I guess that’s still part of my solution.  I’m not a dev, I just know enough words to get things wrong.

  • http://bjdraw.com Ben Drawbaugh

    You make a pretty big assumption here that I think is false: you assume Microsoft is interested in applying resources to a TV related platform that isn’t related to the Xbox.

    Microsoft isn’t going to cut Media Center from Windows because it still continues to add value to the platform and doesn’t cost them much to keep it around. Recreating a Metro HTPC solution would require resources that I don’t think MS thinks can be justified in a business plan. Now when the economy turns around and people have money to burn on hobbies again, then who knows what might happen.

  • http://twitter.com/DanXCook Dan Cook

    Your title is misleading. You state “Microsoft Should Cut Windows Media Center from Windows 8″ while at the same time saying they should keep it in a different way. 

    Maybe you should have called it “Microsoft Should Change How Windows Media Center Works in Windows 8″

  • Anonymous

    Drawbaugh is right that Wade is wrong.  A Metro interface Media Center is a bad solution to a problem that nobody cares about.

  • http://SimplPixl.com/ Ben Wade

    If Microsoft’s objective is to dominate the living room home theater, then why wouldn’t they port TV to Metro?  Xbox gets them most of the market with the low cost solution and Windows 8 “Home Theater Mode” gets the enthusiasts.

    I don’t think it would require much to send the last two people at Microsoft working Media Center after moving TV to Metro.  They would spark not only developers for HTPCs to build more and better apps, but you’ll get developers for tablets and phones involved as well.

    It would be crazy not to get those who develop home theater apps on the same platform as those who create regular windows apps or tablet apps or phone apps.  One shared platform means more developers developing means more apps means more market share.

    But I do agree with Ben.  Microsoft is definitely more focused on Xbox than WMC.  If that’s true then why not just port TV to metro.  Now they have consolidated platforms to just Windows 8.  Less to maintain, means for money/market for MS.

  • http://bjdraw.com Ben Drawbaugh

    Microsoft already owns the enthusiast HTPC market, which is really easy with almost no competitors.

    All that being said, I do expect recordings to be playable via a Metro app, but that isn’t saying much as Windows Media Player can already play recordings. 

    The problem is the HTPC is dead and there isn’t a Metro app that is going to change that. Even people who love their HTPC embrace extenders because they make more sense at each TV. Add in that almost every single provider has expressed plans to release media servers and the small market for Media Center (on a PC) is even smaller. 

    The reality is that to most consumers the following solutions are much more compelling:
    Ceton Q + Echo
    TiVo + Preview
    HR34 + RVU client
    Hopper + Joey
    FiOS Media Server + ?
    U-Verse multiroom

    Even TWC and Comcast have showed demos of real muti-room viewing. The market Window for other solutions is quickly closing with two of these mentioned already out and the rest expected this year.

    Now Metro Apps from providers? Now that is something we are going to see — although, I’m not hopeful they’ll be a replacement for a Media Center user and they might be locked to tablets.

  • Anonymous

    The only two, two and a half points that I agree with in some fashion are “Developing for WMC is an Atrocity/Streaming Services” and “Angry Birds”.

    First off, an ‘Atrocity’ is a harsh word, but MCML is damn tough for sure. MS needs to make WMC a better platform to develop on. It also needs more extensibility. For example, I can switch audio tracks and subtitles in the native WMC DVD player, but for whatever reason, a developer cant leverage that UI for other file formats like MKV.

    This leads into the streaming services subject, but if Netflix could be there, the others could too, Especially confounding is Vudu, seeing as WMC already has Dolby Digital Plus support. But the reason is, as Ben has accurately points to, its just not easy to develop for.

    Secondly, Angry Birds. I’m fed up with Angry Birds in and of itself, so I think you’ve hit a nerve mentioning that game. In any case, performance already isn’t degraded because Media Center is ‘still running in the background’, because its not. Media Center isn’t some resource hog that’s sitting there getting fat and bloated when its got nothing to do, or you launch something from it. The UI exits, and unless you have a recording scheduled, its pretty much off.

    As for hack-job customizing, there are many PC games (usually console ports like Devil May Cry 4, or Mass Effect 2 for example) that automatically put in an icon in the Extras Library to allow you to launch the game. Media Center cleanly exits, and the game launches, and when you leave the game, WMC comes right back up. It’s not running the background at all, unless there’s a recording scheduled. And even then, its not the full WMC, it’s just whatever background processes are responsible for recording. A case I pride myself on is when I launched the known resource hog of a game Crysis from Media Center, and while playing, 2 scheduled HD recordings started. Neither recording was negatively affected, nor was the performance of the game.

    In the end, its clear Ben is on the ‘redo it all in Metro’ team. I am not. In my opinion, Media Center, as a HTPC interface, is still the best around, even after years of neglect by Microsoft. Its a smooth, beautiful, logical, and effective way to watch TV, movies, etc with just a remote. The new Metro UI is not. Metro is better suited to some sort of tablet remote interface, like what Ceton is doing, not THE HTPC interface.

  • Anonymous

    this.

  • Anonymous

    I’m saying that if you are your home’s IT guy, aka the person who setup WMC in the first place, then you are also more than capable of removing a few tiles from the Start screen.

    WPF actually isn’t technically part of Silverlight either. During the middle part of the decade MS went nuts releasing different UI technologies. That includes MCML, WCF, and Silverlight. They are all similiar in someways (especially WCF and Silverlight) but they are all different, with MCML being the most gimped. For example, in WCF and Silverlight you can add a “button” to your UI very easily. In MCML, you don’t have any basic controls. For absolutely everything you have to reinvent the wheel. Ben was not over-exagerating when he talked about how terrible it is to develop for Media Center. And I’m a Media Center MVP who has been a Microsoft developer as my day job for the last 11 years.

  • Anonymous

    Media Center is “Metro”. The original “Metro” in fact. I think you mean WinRT based Media Center. I still think Microsoft could easily make a WinRT “Microsoft TV” app that could access tuners and would be accessible from the same app on the Xbox but they likely won’t based on bjdraw’s points. Enthusiasts would love it but it would not go mainstream as it is too complex. 

  • Anonymous

    The new Xbox interface is now metro and works perfect with a remote. Much better than the old Xbox UI IMO.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with the general premise of the post. I want Microsoft to build Media Center-type functionality as Metro apps. I think it would be a nice UI, and it would open a lot of great development opportunities. However, if it doesn’t happen, it will be for the reasons Ben Drawbaugh mentioned. Ben Drawbaugh often times comes off sounding cynical, but he’s just thinking like a shrewd business person instead of an ideological end user. By the way, I don’t mean that as an insult to either Ben.

  • Anonymous

    I think so too, (I’m the only one among my peers who has no issues with the new Metro dash other than Netflix) but the whole ‘Windows TV’ thing you mentioned I think is a good supplement to Media Center, not a replacement. Nice for those devices to access recordings without having to launch the full WMC interface, but again, not as a replacement.

  • Anonymous

    It’s not helpful to elloquate about something I’m not disagreeing with you on.  I agree that is a problem, but the solution is to provide a solution not abandon the entire platform.

    The fact is 7MC works, and it works pretty great.  Making a new live tv app with the Metro UI means essentially developing something new, and assuming that the new thing will be as good as, or even better than what we have is essentially the same thing as dreaming.

    I’m driving a 14 year old car, because the evil I know is better than the evil I don’t.  The car keeps driving, it’s not perfect, but until I have 25k to allocate to the purchase of a new car, it doesn’t make sense to get anything else.

    Part of me wonders if any of this even matters, we are all going to be using a Ceton Q 12 months from now :D

  • Anonymous

    I really think Microsoft’s only hope for a good Live/Recorded TV experience on the Xbox is AllVid and we know how well thats going.

  • http://bjdraw.com Ben Drawbaugh

    No insult taken, when it comes to MC/HTPC’s, I’m very cynical. Which is actually saying something as I typically consider myself an eternal optimist. Perhaps it is a sign of my age? One foot closer to being a crotchety old man.

  • http://bjdraw.com Ben Drawbaugh

    AllVid? Yeah, that is dead. Comments to the FCC have been officially closed for almost two years and the original idea was to have a new plan implemented by the end of 2012. 

    The sad reality is that the FCC doesn’t have the power to enforce section 629 of the Telecom Act of 1996 and I’m afraid it’ll take an Act of Congress (literally) to change the set-top box space.

  • http://twitter.com/welchwerks Greg Welch

    Simply put,

    cut media center up and tile each peace of it into the new metro UI,  tuners, live tv, movies, recorded tv ect.

  • http://twitter.com/VINYLFREAK TIM BLACK

    I have been a rabid fan of Media Center since 2005. Unfortunately , my only content choices where I live are OTA and Satellite. I have been a Dish Network subscriber for the last ten + years. With STILL NO easy way for me to get my HD Dish signal into my HTPC and Media Center, it pains me to say, I am anxiously awaiting the release of the Dish Hopper system on March 15th. :-(

  • Anonymous

    It’s already been announced that it is staying in Windows 8 so what’s all the fuss about?

  • http://twitter.com/joshpollard Josh Pollard

    Right, we know Media Center will be in Windows 8, but the author of the post is suggesting that it would be much nicer if Microsoft also gave us this functionality through the Metro UI. 

  • Anonymous

     My point was it’s too late for that :)

  • http://twitter.com/VINYLFREAK TIM BLACK

    Until the full Retail version of Windows 8 is released we really wont be 100% sure that MC will Not have functionality within Metro, will we?????
    To the best of my knowledge the Consumer Preview hasn’t even been released yet.  O_o

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  • http://gregsedwards.wordpress.com Greg Edwards

    Hear here! I totally agree with your points, Ben. I love Media Center and have hung onto it for a long time, but it just seems time to move on to something better. I’ve begrudgingly used MyMovies and MediaBrowser to supplement the stuff that just doesn’t work very well in WMC, but I hate the idea of having to replace built-in functionality because it just falls short.

    Looking forward to Windows 8, I’m far less concerned with having another rehashed version of Media Center or Zune Player in Windows 8 than just having a great media strategy and experience from Microsoft + third parties that makes sense.

    Like you, I see the Metro UI as really bringing the Media Center navigation to the entire OS. The thing would probably be very easy to navigate with a remote, just like my Xbox 360. And instead of popping back and forth between a MC interface and a conventional desktop, it seems like all my media applications would (eventually) be accessible directly from the Metro UI. And most importantly, removing the layer that separates the Media Center experience from the rest of the Windows UI would open up the functionality to mainstream users in a way that Microsoft never could by simply bundling MC with more Windows SKUs. At some point, people are going to expect to consume entertainment on their Windows 8 tablets much like we media junkies do now on our HTPCs.

    Anyway, thanks for having the balls to start this conversation here.

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  • Martin Renel

    Don’t know the first thing about this.  But what’s stopping a thrid party making a “better” WinRT app to access a tuner anyhow?