Microsoft's stealth move onto your TV

Microsoft TV
The Prime Time interface: you'll only know it's Media Center if you recognise the green button logo

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.

No splash

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.


Mary (Twitter, Google+, website) started her career at Future Publishing, saw the AOL meltdown first hand the first time around when she ran the AOL UK computing channel, and she's been a freelance tech writer for over a decade. She's used every version of Windows and Office released, and every smartphone too, but she's still looking for the perfect tablet. Yes, she really does have USB earrings.