Microsoft's stealth move onto your TV
14th Apr 2011 | 14:41
Windows-powered TVs that don't reveal their roots
The success of Kinect and the arrival of Tom Gibbons from Microsoft Hardware as head of its TV team have led to plenty of speculation as to whether Microsoft is planning to launch its own TV service, built on Xbox.
Actually, Microsoft already has a successful TV service, Mediaroom, which runs twenty-odd IPTV services around the world, including BT Vision and AT&T Uverse (and some of those you can use with an Xbox instead of a set-top box).
And it's going after the set-top box market for cable and satellite TV, with Media Center systems based on Windows Embedded Standard 7 (a version of Windows 7 that's locked down and broken up into different modules).
There are models already on sale in Italy and Switzerland (at least one of which will be in the US by June) and we saw several prototypes behind the scenes on the Microsoft stand at CES this year.
But you won't see a big splashy launch for Microsoft TV and when you sit down to relax in front of your choice of broadcast TV, online content, TV recordings and DVDs (all from the same set-top box), you might never know it's Microsoft (unless you recognise the style of the Media Center interface).
That's deliberate, says Mark Pendergrast, the senior product manager for Windows Embedded marketing. He was previously with the Windows Home Server team and as with Windows, Microsoft sees itself as supporting hardware partners (including familiar Home Server names like Acer) to build their own products in the TV market rather than making its own 'Windows TV'.
"We're not building a consumer brand," says Pendergrast. "This is all about helping partners so they can build their brand. It's a great alternative to an Android or to Linux."
They get to choose the interface and the look and feel. "One of the fundamental values of Embedded for a partner like Acer is the ability for them to customise the user experience to suit their branding. They can use Media Center or not, they can build their own user interface or not. Even if they pick Media Center they can customise that UI to suit them; you'll never know it's Windows Media Center."
Partners get to choose the features and write their own (in C and .NET rather than HTML and Flash) - and they get a much wider range of actual TV features than with the better-known competitors.
Not like Google
When Google holds its developer conference next month it may launch its rumoured music service for Android but we're expecting the announcements about Google TV to be about putting more apps onto your TV set, using the built-in Flash support (and hopefully about when Google TV will launch outside the US) and less about content beyond the web, which has been one of the big stumbling blocks for the system.
Google TV needs a separate set-top box to give you broadcast TV, only had DVR functions with hand-picked Dish boxes and is blocked from many TV web services.
From the full-size keyboard with special Android buttons to the 'everything's a web site' approach, it's Google first and TV second and neither Sony nor Logitech gets to change the experience.
Apple TV takes the opposite approach but it's still about the Apple brand; think of it as a box for getting content from the ITunes store onto your TV screen - there's no way to watch broadcast content.
With Windows Embedded, hardware manufacturers get everything you can do in Windows: internet TV, streaming video services like Netflix or BBC iPlayer, streaming music like Spotify, web browsing with all the codecs to play videos from sites like YouTube plus a media player that can show your photos and play your MP3 files or your DVDs. Windows Embedded set-top boxes even have the same photo slideshow screensaver as Media Center in Windows 7, panning and zooming through your favourite images.
WEB ON TV: Because Windows Embedded is Windows, you get browsers that can show you any web site - but a simpler interface is better when you're lying around on the sofa
And just like a PC with a TV card, they work as a full DVR for broadcast TV (Freeview or cable - although there are satellite TV services that work with Windows in the US, in the UK Sky is still limited to a selection of channels in a Media Center app, but of course that works too).
"It's a way for cable companies to add value to their broadcast TV solution, which the vast majority of consumers are still using; it's going to take a while before cable cutting becomes truly widespread," says Pendergrast. "If you're a sports enthusiast, you can't find any live TV sports on the internet in the US on a regular basis. Broadcast TV is only as good as the shows that are on; it's really fundamentally a problem of content not technology and habits."
And hardware manufacturers can put it all in a single set-top box controlled by something that looks at least a little like a remote control (although Pendergrast points out you can also use a Windows Phone as a remote control, or send content from a PC using DLNA).
Chinese manufacturer Haier has a prototype 55" LED LCD TV that you can add a 'Mocard' to for gaming, for education and maybe for Media Center - with a custom interface on top of Media Center, including tiles for popular internet TV sites (plus you can type in any URL). To make that easier the remote has the usual buttons - but it also has a QWERTY keyboard and mouse pointer.
Blurosso's Vivaldi Internet TV uses Windows Embedded to drive the virtual Dolby Surround system, Blu-ray player and webcam (and it's made with leather and carbon fiber and costs a cool 11,000 euros in Italy).
Prime Time makes a much more basic Embedded set-top box for Swiss TV service Swisscom, based on Atom and Ion HD acceleration; the Media Center interface is skinned so it doesn't look quite like Windows and it comes with its own app store that offers weather apps, radio apps, Boxee, Hulu - and the Chrome browser.
"As a platform we don't really care too much what they include," says Pendergrast cheerfully; "it's really up to them."
CHROME TV:That's the Chrome browser on a Microsoft TV, courtesy of Windows Embedded
Reycom has a similar Atom and Icon set-top box with a Blu-ray drive and DVBT tuner where you don't even see the green Media Center logo. It's already in use in Switzerland and will be coming to the US in the second quarter of this year.
Only in the US so far is Gateway's new media box with six cable TV tuners. Not only can you record multiple shows at the same time, but you can record over your home network onto one of your PCs - including a laptop, so you can record a show at night and have it waiting for you in the morning to watch on the train to work.
NEW LOOK: Gateway's interface looks nothing like Media Center - but it's the same features
There are more Embedded set-top boxes on the way, including models based on Intel's Sodaville low-power SystemOnChip. And when the next version of Windows runs on ARM, Windows Embedded will inherit that support (although Pendergrast points out that Google TV is also based on Atom).
"It will be an interesting space, it really will," he told TechRadar. And with the different approach Microsoft is taking he's not daunted by the fact that it's Apple and Google getting all the publicity in the internet TV arena.
"The fact we've got competitors in this space adding even more credibility is a good thing. Google and Apple, that's all good because all of this helps build overall interest in this category and awareness for consumers."
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