How Microsoft Could Finally Invade the Living Room

Reading this piece over at CNN Tech about how the Xbox Kinect could be the future of TV, but won’t be, it dawned on me Microsoft do have everything in place to start making their own version of the Apple TV, only better, if they wished.  They have all the components in place and the success of the Xbox shows they can deliver hardware as well.  So how about their own set-top box, or at least software to power an internet TV?

I’ve run a Windows PC with Media Centre and a TV tuner for several years.  Largely it’s been reliable and much more flexible and adaptable than any pre-built device.  It already has a large user base and plenty of add-on applications (albeit installed as normal Windows apps).  So why not build their own device that tucks Windows away and uses Media Centre as the front-end?

The Xbox is basically a PC with set hardware for developers to develop for (no need to write code that handles multiple sound cards, graphics cards, etc), so you could build a standard box (basically a normal PC), with known and tested components (TV tuner, sound card, graphics, etc) and load a cut-down version of Windows on it (with security tightened up) that boots straight into Media Centre.  Give people the option to pick different size HDDs (and the option to upgrade them), plus USB, NAS and Home Server hook-up for larger media libraries.

I’d suggest changing the add-on process so they have a store (although keep the option to load off USB perhaps), but make it a more formal add-on/extension/app environment.  There are already things like Netflix, iPlayer and other services that have tools for Media Centre.  Not to mention things like web browsers.

And there you have it, you could even call it the Microsoft Media Centre.  What the benefits over the existing boxes?  There are currently three options I can think of:

  1. Digital/Personal Video Recorders (DVR/PVR): Some have apps but you’re limited on expandability (i.e. once you’re out of space, that’s it) and they don’t offer playback of ripped files.
  2. Media Playback Devices (e.g. Boxee Box, Roku, Apple TV): supports playback of ripped or streaming files, but not live TV or recording TV shows.
  3. Roll your own: going either Windows, Linux or Mac, build your own media centre, you get both options above but it’s a lot of work with many pitfalls.

So, if MS could get a device that does the lot, has the option to hook up to Xbox Live to buy/stream movies and other content then they’re ahead of anything else in the market.  If they want to add in functionality for something like the Kinect to allow you to control the device via gestures or voice commands, that would be fairly simple too (although I don’t really see the point, remotes work perfectly fine, just make one with a keyboard on it like Boxee did).

Everyone seems to think that internet TVs are the next thing, but while that’s great for some things, small apps, etc, they probably aren’t going to offer things like PVR functionality or playback of ripped media, plus keeping the two separate means you can upgrade one without the other.  If MS want to offer the platform to TV manufacturers I’m sure they’d get some takers though, even with cut-down functionality limited to web access, apps and streaming media.

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