Microsoft Set to Unveil Media Center Based Set Top Box at CES?

Business Insider today reports that Microsoft will formally unveil their “response to Apple TV and Google TV” this week, in CEO Steve Ballmer’s CES keynote speech on Wednesday. The new set-top box platform is likely to be based on Windows Embedded 7 and will run Windows Media Center.

Microsoft previewed Media Center running on their stripped down version of Windows back in April. as regular readers will know, we’re big fans of Media Center here at WGS, and the application is sure to work well in the set-top box form factor. The provision of Live and Recorded TV is sure to help Microsoft compete with Apple, Boxee and other over the top media receiver platforms – the question, however, is how well Microsoft themselves will support the new platform. Media Center exists in millions of homes around the world, but it remains a niche application.

Whilst Media Center has been shipped with every copy of Windows Vista and Windows 7 sold over the last few years, anecdotal evidence suggests that adoption has been relatively low – ask your family and friends about the green button, and you’re sure to get blank looks. That’s not to say Microsoft haven’t tried to drive adoption of the platform, but two generations of Windows Media Center Extenders failed to set the world alight, and have now been abandoned. Even integration with Xbox 360 has failed to drive Media Center adoption – so what’s different in 2011?

Two things may tip the balance in Microsoft’s favour. Firstly, the removal of the PC from the equation. in the post-Gates era, the Windows PC no longer has to be the center of the digital home. it can be a key player, for sure, but Microsoft have finally realised that platforms like Xbox 360 and Windows Phone 7 can exist in their own right without being tightly integrated with the PC ecosystem. The new set top boxes are likely to ship with integrated TV tuners, so there’ll no longer be a need to connect to a Windows PC for Live TV access – that’s a big win.

Secondly, mainstream users are consuming ever more digital media in the home – whether it’s viewing photos on Facebook, streaming videos from Netflix and BBC iPlayer or online music from Spotify and Pandora. Media streaming is becoming ever more popular, and I’m sure that’ll be reflected in a swathe of new media streaming devices showcased at CES 2011, ready to meet this emerging need. Maybe the time is right for Microsoft to try again.

The new devices may well look great, but the question, of course, is one of confidence. having already dropped two generations of Media Center Extenders, how much confidence will Microsoft have in their ability to compete in an increasingly crowded market against Apple, Google, Boxee and others with this latest set top box? can consumers be confident that this time around Microsoft and their partners will support the platform for a reasonable period of time?

If Steve Ballmer does indeed unveil a new iteration of Media Center on Wednesday, I’ll be delighted. But cautious.

Microsoft Set to Unveil Media Center Based Set Top Box at CES?

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