09.25.09

Microsoft: You can’t play Apple’s Game

Posted in Mobile, Windows at 8:32 pm by mike

So I read the NY Times Zune HD review last week and I hope every Microsoft employee is experiencing the embarrassment I feel for them.  The feature set reeks of committee compromise.   It’s obvious that so many different parts of Microsoft needed to have their say in the Zune design that none of them won, and the goal became to make the second best media player in the world by copying a couple features from the best one.    Rather than play up Microsoft’s strengths against Apples weaknesses, the Zune HD tried to hit all the IPod’s strong points, and comes out second best.   Somehow, even in Job’s absence, Apple was still able to maintain rigid control over every touch, click and byte over every product they make.   This IS NOT Microsoft’s strength and they will fail trying to emulate it.

What Microsoft does best is give their development community fantastic tools for expanding the platform.   This is the one area where Apple still lags far behind Microsoft.   I say this as a Mac enterprise application developer who is currently suffering the pain of lack of binaries compatibility between 10.4, 10.5 and 10.6.   But if I believe this review, Microsoft has abandoned developers for the Zune HD.

One example I have to mention is NControl.   This is the best remote control application I’ve seen for Windows Media Center.  And BTW, it runs on the IPod/IPhone platform.   Where is the Zune version?   Sorry, you can’t even start working on it yet because according to David Pogue the development environment and Zune app store is closed.   I have a very difficult time believing this, especially when I see other announcements about XNA Game Studio and the like.   If this isn’t true, Microsoft needs to get the NY Times to correct that part of the article.

So where can Microsoft trump Apple?   The one evil thing Apple does is lock it’s users into a box which they are not allowed to escape.   Now, Apple marketing does a wonderful job convincing customers they really want to live in that box, and life will be better if they just give Apple their credit card numbers, and never leave the box.    Google has already begun to play on that theme by making Android as wide open as possible, and they must snicker every time the see Microsoft try to pull the Apple trick.    But there are at least three places Microsoft can win while making Apple look like the evil empire:

#1: Jail-Break everything!

Take the handcuffs off the developers and let the hacking community loose.    So much time is wasted fighting the DRM requirements for media that developers are losing interest in the Media Center platform.    Take a hard look at XBMC.  There’s simply no way that a company the size of Microsoft can compete with their development community when it comes to innovation like this. Rather than try to create a poor mimic of that interface, provide a mechanism for it to tie into the CableCARD pipeline and MCE recording engine.    Yes, I know the legal issues surround DRM are non-trivial, but Microsoft is one of the few companies in the world with the resources to manage the Entertainment industry’s legal charge to their own death.

At the same time, open up the XBox to anyone.   Sure, some small percentage might be lost to Linux gaming stations or crypto decoders, but it’s never going to be enough to effect the bottom line and that minor revenue loss will make up for itself in marketing value.    It’s a much better solution than what you have today, where people buy the machine anyways, hack past the DRM and then just promote more bad press against the Microsoft experience.

Furthermore, this obviously puts Apple on the defensive, since they need to keep their users in the box to micro-manage the experience.   It appears Microsoft is trying to emulate this with the Zune HD, and it’s a fatal mistake.

#2 Build a mobile browser that works on ALL WEB SITES

Another area where Apple convinces it’s users the IPhone box is a good place to live.   You can’t stream video or audio through Safari.     Meanwhile, Skyfire (which has been blocked from the IPhone App Store) has done it for Windows Mobile with a Proxy RDP browser architecture.  Every Flash, Silverlight, Javascript, etc.. site works perfectly!   With the Zune HD touch controls, you’d have all the slick touch controls of the IPhone, but without boxing in the user.  The only problem they run into is when a site decides to block their proxy.   I assume Microsoft could correct such misunderstanding much faster than a small startup.    A full web browsing experience could the the killer app to take a big bite out of the IPhone.

#3  Support the development community

Of course Microsoft hasn’t abandoned their developers, but they certainly weren’t included in the Zune HD announcement.   The community needs Microsoft to do a couple things.   One, solve the hard grungy problems, like CableCARD OCUR specs and running Flash and Silverlight on the same handheld device.   Two, provide a roadmap through the plethora of Microsoft API’s and SDKs especially with respect to the three screens and the cloud.   How about some $1M contests and prizes for the best Zune/Mobile app, or the best combo 3SC app?  Apple basically abuses it’s development community, counting on the fanatical user community to beat them into submission.   That strategy will not work for Microsoft, and I fear the company is trying to emulate Apple in this respect as well.   The danger here is all the interesting applications get pushed to IPhone, Android and Palm.   There’s still no Stitcher app for Windows Mobile.   It’s now been pushed to your third or fourth port after BlackBerry, Android and soon Palm WebOS.

Now that Microsoft is releasing some amazing products (W7, XBox, Zune HD hardware),  it’s time to go back to Microsoft’s roots, and focus on the developers.   There’s plenty of cash in the coffers to throw at the development community, and the bang for the buck has to beat a Windows 7 launch party.   This is the place Microsoft can win big and avoid the large company politics sucking the life out of product development.

09.10.09

Comcast Digital Transition

Posted in Home Theater, Windows at 9:28 pm by mike

So it seems Comcast has finally turned off the analog signals for the extended basic channels in San Francisco as I alluded to here.   Since it took over 3 months from the actual announcement, it gave me plenty of time to crawl all the forums and websites to understand exactly what happens from here.    Futhermore, a couple new news items popped up in the meantime which clarified what Comcast and other cable operators are doing.

So I’m currently running Microsoft Media Center on Vista, and I actually don’t experience all the horrid Vista stories you slash.dot readers may be accustomed to.   That said, there still are a number of quirks, but keeping an eye on thegreenbutton W7 posts, I haven’t been convinced that Windows 7 Media Center is going to be much better.

No More Analog Channels

So as Comcast started turning off the analog channels, I started seeing complaints from Media Center as it could no longer record shows on those channels.    Running a channel scan didn’t pick up any of the new channels, which I thought was odd since I knew the digital broadcasts of the extended basic channels are not encrypted (yet).    It turns out that Comcast sets a privacy flag on those channels which VMC respects and thus doesn’t automatically tune the channel.  (Thanks John) Instead, you have to go through a fairly cumbersome process of adding the channel by hand, editing the listing of the channel to merge it with the old analog channel in the guide, and then edit the sources of the channel and disable the analog signal (which is just static at this point).

For those of you who simply bought a TV with a digital tuner, connected your cable to it and found all the channels you paid for the same way your old analog set worked, that should still work, assuming your TV ignores the privacy flag.   If not, I’m told the digital TV tuners provide a similar mechanism to enter the digital channel number.    Unfortunately, Comcast and the other cable providers have received an FCC waiver to encrypt these channels as well.   So eventually everyone will need to either have a full set-top-box, a DTA converter, or a CableCARD compatible tuner.

So it’s unclear when Comcast will start encrypting those channels.   In order to do so, they will need to either replace or upload new firmware to the DTA’s currently distributed to customers.   Supposedly, these devices are designed to be updated in the field,  but I suspect that’s easier said than done, so we may have the unencrypted channels for some time.    That said, the current situation does allow Basic Cable subscribers to get Extended Basic without paying for it, but to do this you need to be pretty savvy (or read this blog, and who does that?).

Tuning Digital Channels

So how do you find the digital channel numbers for the clear QAM extended basic channels that VMC or your TV won’t scan by default?    Well first there’s the hard way.   It turns the new DTA’s deployed by Comcast have a simple diagnostic mode which will tell you the actual frequency and program number the current channel is broadcasting on.  Once you have the frequency, you can either do some math, or look it up on Wikipedia to find the channel number.

Or, you can simply go to SiliconDust, enter your zip code and find a complete listing there.   Make sure you choose the right line up.   After tuning a couple channel using the first method, going to SiliconDust is simply cheating.     SiliconDust is the maker of the HDHomeRun which is a combined DVR/media server solution.  Unfortunately, the value of this product will be greatly reduced when Comcast starts encrypting the extended basic channels.   It will still be able to record all the local broadcast channels, but that’s going to be a much more limited set than what they have today.   I suppose they can always offer a CableCARD version of the product, but their current customer base is probably going to be very unhappy.

Just Install the Damn CableCARD!

So not only would all these headaches go away if I just picked up a couple CableCARDs from Comcast, but I’d also be able to record a slew of new HD channels my VMC box currently doesn’t see.     The problem here is that the current CableCARD firmware incorrectly adds DRM to all recordings, even when not specified by the broadcaster.   This means everything recorded on the HTPC must stay there.   This means my daughter can’t watch Sesame Street on the laptop while I watch football, which is unacceptable.   The DRM also disables the commercial skip capabilities provided by programs such as ShowAnalyzer.  Futhermore, who has time to actually watch the shows when you’re spending so much time hacking the system?  In any case, the CableLabs OCUR (OpenCable Unidirectional Receiver) spec has finally been updated to remove this requirement.    But in order for this to work, a firmware update from ATI is required for the DCT.  I’m hopeful, but I’ve heard this story before.

Update 06.07.2010

So before ATI killed the card, they did release the firmware update.   I’m now happily running Windows 7 with 2 ATI tuners, both with a CableCARD and no DRM.   I’m happily watching on my laptop and skipping commercials.