Before I go into this post, I have to explain my intentions. I respect NDAs very much, and I always have. I’ve built my career as a Microsoft commentator on acquiring as much access as possible, through playing by the “rules”. When someone asks me not to talk about something, or tells me something in confidence, most of the time I don’t blog about it.
The rule of thumb with Windows Featured Communities is, if it’s NDA, we can talk about it until Microsoft talks about it. I’m a Digital Cable Tuner (OCUR) beta tester, and as such I’ve been testing "Fiji" over the past few months. As MJ so accurately reported, Microsoft has gagged all of the (generally angry) beta testers from speaking about anything until the CEDIA conference on September 3rd. However, Microsoft released a statement on Friday about the contents of the TV Pack, as well as its distribution model, which means I can put forth my opinion on the matter without disclosing any new information. Microsoft may very well sanction me for this post (they tried to have my MVP taken away once because I *speculated* on the Diamond release, even though I had no direct knowledge about it and was not a beta tester at the time), but IMO they are about to make what could be the last mistake for the Media Center platform, and there is still time to stop it.
Please Note: This passionate rant is not directed at any of the awesome beta coordinators, PMs, or developers on WMC. They are awesome, and have done a great job with the resources they have been given. It is directed at the decision makers at the highest level who have let this mess come to pass. It's directed at the "Marketers" who think its customers are stupid. We are not.
Calling a Spade a Spade..., or "When Marketers Deceive"
The powers that be over at the eHome Product Management (that's "Marketing" for the uninitiated) are calling this the "Windows Media Center TV Pack". Calling it this would be fine if it added-on functionality to the RTM bits. But it doesn't, it completely replaces core WMC binaries. That means it's not an add-on, it is a version upgrade. But Microsoft doesn't want you to feel entitled to this upgrade, so they think by calling it something else, you'll fall for their cop-out.
But when Robbie Bach’s eHome team aligned the post-Diamond release with the next Windows release, they committed to providing regular updates to every single user, in a manner consistent with the rest of the Windows stack, ie: through upgrades via Windows Update. Whether they realized it or not, that’s the commitment they made to their customers.
When It Comes To Broadcast Media, You Are the Consumer, Not the Customer
That’s right, Microsoft… I’m talking about your *real* customers. Not OEMs who turn around and resell your product (just like end users are not DVR manufacturers' customers either). I’m talking about END USERS. You know, the people that Apple seems to have such an easy time pleasing, and the people form whom you have seen to forgotten about. Because Microsoft has decided that the “cone of silence” is the best thing for consumers, as MJ has spent so much time reporting on. The surprising part is, this cover-up isn’t coming from the Windows division, who wouldn’t even talk about Windows Vista SP1 until it was practically in the general population’s hands. Nope, this is coming from the same division that just spent a week wowing people at E3; the same people who are so eager to please with the Xbox 360 and the Zune.
If Microsoft listened to it's true customers about WMC development, this release would have:
To be fair, consumers HAVE been asking to be able to use Analog and Digital tuners together (called "heterogeneous tuning"), which is a feature that is purported to be in Fiji... (though I can't confirm or deny it), so it's not completely without input from consumers. But if you happen to own an existing HTPC with Digital Cable Tuners, and want to add an analog tuner to your rig, you're SOL
And so Microsoft has decided to go back on their word yet again, and is returning to the strategy they used with Windows XP Media Center by releasing this WMC 3.5 upgrade only for purchase on new computers. As they conveyed in their release, they think that the only people that buy new computers will be in a position to take advantage of the new features in Fiji. They’ll try to tell you that it’s all about supporting TV standards, but that is a load of garbage. It has new features and bug fixes in it, just like any other release. It has better tuner support, more options for HD users (can't talk specifics, sorry), and plenty more that the entire Windows user base should have the opportunity to take advantage of.
IMHO, The Real Reason You're Not Getting "Fiji"
AFAIK, the Windows Media Center team is the only team in the history of Microsoft NOT to have a clear upgrade path between versions, and I personally think that is ludicrous. It's not because OEMs "are best positioned to provide the testing and hardware configurations for a great customer experience", much as they would like you to believe it. The real reason you're not getting this upgrade is because WMC is the red-headed stepchild of the eHome division, and the Xbox team is the only one over there allowed to blow through piles of cash to fix every mistake or solve any problem.
Microsoft, in it's infinite wisdom and seemingly endless piles of cash, is not willing to commit the money necessary to hire enough developers, internal testers, and beta coordinating resources to write the code necessary to be able to do an in-place upgrade supportable on the millions of Vista systems out there. That's why Vista was on the market for 18 months before compatible Media Center Extenders were widely available (WTF was up with THAT??!?!), and that's why 60M+ Home Premium and Ultimate users are about to be given the proverbial shaft.
The Overlooked Incompatibility
In all the discussions that have taken place so far, no one has yet mentioned the inevitable 'customer experience": A family with an existing Vista Media Center RTM system decides to buy a new computer with a Vista Media Center "TV Pack". Because it's Windows Vista, the average consumer would expect that they would be able to watch non-DRMed content on any Media Center PC in the house. Not so with this "TV Pack", because the format for WMC-recorded content has changed from DVR-MS to WTV, meaning that older Media Centers will not be able to view the content *at all*. Not in Windows Media Player, not at all. If you don't have an Extender, you're screwed. Which leaves me to wonder, Is this the "great customer experience" Microsoft was referring to, cause it sounds pretty stupid if you ask me.
And by the way, how are add-on developers supposed to get their hands on bits to fix compatibility issues that the file format change has caused? Does Microsoft just expect them to buy new PCs? Give me a break.
My Bottom Line
Microsoft, I kept relatively quiet about the Ultimate Extras nonsense, even though I thought it was bullsh!t that Sinofsky could just go in there and cancel a feature that was supposed to deliver value to Microsoft's best customers. But now you have gone too far. If you are not going to *at the very least* provide this so-called "TV Pack" to your Ultimate customers as a function of Ultimate Extras, then maybe it's time that we, as Microsoft's true customers, should start looking at our other options for Microsoft's failure to deliver what Ultimate customers paid for. Because I have yet to see an Ultimate Extra that is worth the extra $100 I paid. Personally, I would think that committing the resources to be able to let everyone upgrade to WMC 3.5 would be a lot cheaper than the write-down involved in refunding every Ultimate user $100 (plus the legal fees of obtaining such a refund). But then again, I was never very good at math.
Oh yeah, Microsoft should also move the Media Center team out of eHome and into the Windows division. The risk of even more radio silence FAR outweighs the access to resources and test-system coverage that the Windows team has access to. And anyone who had a hand in green-lighting this completely asinine decision should be fired for gross incompetence.
So, I've ranted long enough. What, dear reader, do YOU think? I'm sure Microsoft will be paying attention to this post, so feel free to leave your comments... no registration required.