Microsoft Built A Cable Box Killer, And Then Killed It

Microsoft Built A Cable Box Killer, And Then Killed It

Last month, Microsoft confirmed that Windows Media Center would not be included in Windows 10. It was not a surprise, because almost no one uses Windows Media Center (it was only available as a paid add-on in Windows 8). But it is a shame, because Windows Media Center might be the best DVR software out there. And it should have killed the cable box.

Cable boxes are, almost without exception, awful. They’re under-powed computers running very badly designed software. Their channel guides are slow, poorly laid out, and usually riddled with ads. Cable companies extort subscribers by “leasing” the box you need to get the channels and features you already pay for. Even the remotes are usually poorly designed.

Windows Media Center, developed for Windows XP and upgraded for Windows Vista and Windows 7, has an intuitive interface and a customisable and searchable channel guide. It’s easy to navigate your stored recordings and the built-in media player is responsive and quick. It does most of what every cable box does, but better. And it runs well on almost any machine. The only problem, upon its initial release, was getting it to work with cable TV.

But this wasn’t Media Center’s problem — it was a problem built into the way cable companies prefer to distribute their product.

Turn Your Computer Into A Cable Box

It’s been possible for years to use a PC to watch and record over-the-air television broadcasts, and unencrypted cable television tuners have been available almost as long. But for a long time, you could only watch copyright-protected channels with a cable company-leased box. In 2007, when AMD produced the ATI TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner, consumers could finally replace cable boxes with PCs and still watch and record all the cable channels in their subscriptions. And it’s only since 2009 that Microsoft allowed consumers to use CableCARD tuners with any PC, instead of restricting them to CableLabs-approved OEM hardware. As a result, we’ve had a few glorious years where a normal person might actually want to go to the trouble of setting up Media Center to work with encrypted cable.

During that time, Media Center has been the best digital cable DVR available in the United States. Unlike Kodi (formerly XBMC), MythTV, and every other DVR software package currently available for use on a PC, Windows Media Center can watch and record encrypted digital cable. A TiVo DVR — which can also be used to record encrypted channels — may cost less than a new Windows computer and CableCARD tuner, but their DVR service costs $US15 a month, or $US150 a year, or $US500 for a lifetime subscription. Windows Media Center is free (at least, after your one-time purchase of Windows).

Millions of computers came preinstalled with a program that should have killed the cable box forever. Why did Microsoft abandon it?

The reason Media Center never took off beyond a small (but very dedicated) community of home theatre PC diehards is that it took just a bit too much effort to set up. To watch encrypted cable — which is, for many cable companies, most channels, and all premium channels — you needed a PC running Windows Vista or 7, a CableCARD tuner, and a CableCARD. To get the CableCARD, you had to call your cable company. Plus, many cable companies require one of their technicians to install and activate the card, despite the fact that hardly any cable company technicians have much experience with non-TiVo CableCARD tuners and Windows Media Center. To watch copyright-protected cable on your television via your Media Center set-up, you also need an HDCP-compliant display connection from your PC. You’ll also probably want a media centre remote, and a wireless mouse and keyboard. You’ll need plenty of storage as well, if you’re planning on taping a lot of HD content.

Here’s an example of the set-up process (and this is an example where everything works as it’s supposed to):

That looks more onerous than it actually is, but, like everything involving dealing with your cable company, it can take forever. It’s decidedly not as simple as just buying a box (or a dongle) and plugging it in. The fault isn’t entirely (or even mostly) with Microsoft. Copyright protection standards and cable company red tape are responsible for most of what makes the process such a pain in the arse.

The CableCARD Problem

It mostly comes back to that CableCARD. CableCARD is a specification created by the telecom industry in response to the (industry-supported) Telecommunications Act of 1996. The CableCARD standard was supposed to create a competitive marketplace, by allowing consumer electronics companies to make their own set-top boxes, freeing consumers from reliance on their cable company’s bad box. It didn’t work, at all, in large part because telecom companies delayed implementation of the standard as much as possible, and because Cable Labs, a telecom industry consortium, is the sole entity responsible for determining which devices and software meet the CableCARD standard. Obtaining certification requires a lot of hoop-jumping a quite a bit of money.

Still, by 2011 there were multiple CableCARD tuners on the market, at (mostly) reasonable prices, that allowed for recording multiple channels at once. This could’ve been the point at which Microsoft leveraged its expertise, its position, and its assets to create the competitive set-top box. But by then, Microsoft had already disbanded the team responsible for creating and developing Media Center. They apparently determined (perhaps correctly) that creating a plug-and-play, full-feature set-top box replacement — one cheaper than TiVo and not tied to any specific hardware — wasn’t worth the effort.

As for Media Center replacements, none of the existing open-source DVR projects are going to get CableLabs certification anytime soon. SiliconDust, a company that produces one of the best CableCARD tuners on the market, is working on its own media centre software with CableCARD support, but SiliconDust is a small company with a modest user base. If Microsoft couldn’t popularise software that was automatically installed on every Windows PC and supported on every XBox 360, SiliconDust has its work cut out for it.

Waiting for January, 2020

For those of us still stupidly attached to live sports and Turner Classic Movies, we can take solace in the fact that Media Center will work for as long as Microsoft supports Windows 7 (which is, officially, until January 2020), and probably (if need be) beyond, with some sort of third-party guide data support. It won’t be updated, but it hasn’t really been updated since 2009 anyway. It’s stable. You could set it up right now and not worry about obsolescence for years.

In terms of video distribution technology, software, and standards, 2020 is a lifetime away. It’s impossible to predict what the premium television landscape will actually look like by then. Facebook will beam Vine stars directly to our Oculus Rift implants, probably. Or else we’ll just be watching the dust behind the war rig we’re following to Bullet Farm.

CableCARD successors have been proposed and debated almost since CableCARD was established. Cable (and satellite) companies have fought and will continue to fight every attempt to make it easier to watch, record and manipulate live TV without renting their boxes and using their proprietary systems. But whatever replaces CableCARD will be negotiated and instituted in a world where major tech companies have as much clout as telecoms.

There are a couple of companies with the resources to take on CableLabs and the desire to take over as many screens as possible. Ideally, in the future, you’ll just pay your cable company for the stream, which you’ll be able to watch and manipulate through whatever means on whatever devices you like. Their efforts in that direction haven’t been very impressive thus far, but Apple and Google could still figure out what Microsoft couldn’t.

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