I got this question a lot when I was on the Windows Media Center team. Usually it assumes the enthusiast market is an undesirable place to be and I never agreed with that position. Reading Chris Anderson’s 'The Long Tail' convinced me of that a long time ago.
Before I give my answer let me define 'beyond the enthusiast market' for the purposes of this post: I consider items like televisions, DVD players, cars, computers and phones as things which have gone beyond the enthusiast market. Leave a comment to tell us how your definition might be different.
My answer: It's possible, but highly unlikely at this point.
Products which become mainstream are usually very simple in nature to use (televisions, DVD players, phones) or are complex yet fundamentally market changing over a very long period of time (cars, computers).
The user interface for Windows Media Center greatly simplifies the enjoyment of core media experiences (music, pictures, videos, TV) but underneath the covers it's highly complex. It's also very complex to setup for most mainstream consumers for two big reasons (among several smaller ones)...
- It's an interface designed for and best used on a television with a remote control. The mainstream market doesn't typically place a computer next to their television.
- The unique core value proposition* is the digital video recorder functionality. Getting the TV signal to the computer is a challenge for the mainstream market.
The Windows Media Center team did a fantastic job of overcoming the first hurdle (co-location with a TV) with the introduction of the Extender. At the same time it also introduced another barrier: the home network. Throw in the fact the mainstream market doesn't have Ethernet jacks in every room next to their TV. This requires a high availability wireless network to push lots of [HD] video around which presents yet another hurdle.
So, given it's relative complexity can it be one of those fundamentally market changing items over a long period of time?
Probably not. Windows Media Center had its genesis with the coax cable (referring back to its unique value proposition) and it was a game changer in that context. There were many others doing broadcast TV on a computer long before Windows Media Center. Windows Media Center brought a scale and awareness not seen before.
As with many things (especially in technology) the market around it dramatically changed. The game changed.
To remain relevant (and become mainstream) in a market where the internet will increasingly be the dominant way of getting nearly all forms of commercial content the Windows Media Center team must fully embrace the internet rather than simply leveraging. Over the course of Windows 7 development the equivalent of three people (one each PM, Dev, Test) on the platform team tried to do just that with the Data Access Model Items, Media Collection and Page Model, Navigation and State API work. Another relatively small team continued to crank out the Internet TV features for customers in the United States. By comparison a significant number of resources continued to work on the traditional TV pipes paradigm (broadcast, cable, satellite) for Windows 7. In a nutshell, very little embracing.
All that said…
I do believe Windows Media Center has paved the way for much richer, elegant and interactive experiences for the television beyond what game consoles are offering today. It gives the mainstream market a glimpse of just how powerful the next wave (or two) of internet connected devices in our home might become in the future. I challenge folks all the time to tell me what other distributed audio / video / photo system has as much bang for the buck. It's a pretty hard value to beat. Nothing else on the market allows me to enjoy all of ‘my’ content (personal and commercial) in such an elegant AND affordable way. Leave a comment if you believe you have a worthy contender.
It may be niche, but the niche sure is sweet!
And because of that I’m quite bullish on the future prospects despite the hurdles faced. Like you, I’m now waiting to see what comes next while I enjoy what I have today.
Got a question about Windows Media Center for someone who worked on it once upon a time?Ask on Twitter via @charlieo.
* The unique thing about Windows Media Center compared to other features which ship with Windows is the digital video recorder and electronic programming guide. Most (if not all) of the other key features (photos, videos, music) have equivalents on the desktop.