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More Media Center in 08

Readers of my column over the years know that I have been a proponent of Microsoft’s Media Center software as a driving force for home media management and control in our industry. When the first version of Media Center was introduced by Microsoft on an HP platform in 2002 it showcased a graphical on-screen interface that could change the way we control and watch television, movies, and view our photos. And when Exceptional Innovation first introduced its version of Lifeware for the Media Center platform in 2005 it signaled the beginning of a home automation on-screen interface solution that would match the look and feel of the media management interface of the Microsoft’s Media Center–giving the end-user one single easy-to-use on-screen interface to learn for the management of all of their audio video and home control systems.

Today there are dozens of computing platforms that run the Media Center software and an equally large number of third-party companies that have added a Media Center AV Control interface to their home control platforms (e.g., HAI, Superna, Crestron, etc.). What is becoming increasingly clear to the media management and home control industry is that a single on-screen user interface is an ideal solution to maximize the use and control of the complex electronic systems that we install in our client’s homes.

The HDTV Factor
Specifically, of all the electronic control interfaces that are important to our clients, the most critical is the ability to easily view, record, and playback high definition television in multiple rooms throughout the home. The ability to easily view and control high definition TV from anywhere in the home is one of the more challenging tasks that an integrator faces–not as much due to technical issues as it is due to digital rights management issues. Of all the high definition set-top boxes available today (satellite or cable), only one hardware platform allows you to record high definition content to one central box and stream that HD digital content to up to five remote TV locations. That hardware platform is a cable card compliant set-top box running the Microsoft Vista software streaming HD content to Xbox clients. The only other alternative to high definition video distribution is to set up multiple HD set-top boxes in a rack and have their HD output content switched to multiple TVs throughout the home under the control of an RS232 command from a home automation software package. This latter solution is complex and costly and still does not solve the fundamental problem of a single storage source where all HD TV programs can be stored and viewed. The multiple HD-DVR solution still requires the end-user to know which set-top box contains the content they wish to view.

In my opinion, once the graphical control interface for distributed HD TV content problem has been solved you are well on your way to establishing a “defacto” interface for all of the home’s media management and control because of the critical importance of this function. Products that fall short of this level of HD AV management will have a glaring deficiency in their offering.

CI Catalysts
So here we are today, five years after the first introduction of the Media Center platform and a valid point can be made that Media Center control solutions still represent a small fraction of the home control market when compared to the penetration of Crestron, AMX, ELAN, Control4 and HAI (to name a few) in custom electronics installations. Is 2008 really going to be the year the Media Center finally gains significant traction in the custom electronics media management and control space or will it continue to be a novelty to custom electronics integrators that will always be too concerned about the platform’s stability to give it serious consideration for their client’s homes.

It is my belief that Microsoft Media Center’s ability to store, record and distribute HD TV content throughout a trusted environment of cable card VISTA platforms and XBOX extenders will be the catalyst event that will help them gain significant momentum in the home AV and control market–and time will tell if the reliability of their platform will stand the test of daily usage in the home.

Perhaps the most telling endorsement of Microsoft’s penetration into the home AV and control market came from Crestron’s announcement in late July that they have been certified by Microsoft to develop a VISTA OEM media center platform for the Crestron suite of hardware and software solutions (presumably to enable a streaming HD video distribution)–with more detailed announcements to be made at this year’s CEDIA EXPO. If you’ve been sitting on the Media Center sideline for the last five years it’s time to seriously consider getting in the game. Even if you don’t agree with my Media Center advice over the years Crestron’s announcements this fall should merit our serious attention.