Open Standards Are the Ultimate Media Extender

from the is-that-all? dept

Last week, Microsoft unveiled its latest push into our living rooms with a new line of "extenders" that allow people stream media from a Windows Vista Home or Ultimate PC to their home entertainment system. I'm sure they're great devices, but what I find really remarkable is how slowly products like this are coming to market. The hardware required to stream video over a network and display it on a television have been around for years, and there's no reason there shouldn't have been a ton of video-streaming products on the market years ago. It's worth comparing the trickle of computer-based home video products with the flood of MP3 players that were released in the late 1990s. Within two years of the first MP3 player appearing on the scene, there were at least half a dozen companies producing competing MP3 players, with a wide variety of feature sets and price point. And this was at a time when the products were still incredibly primitive: the first generation of players could hold a couple dozen songs at most.

What changed? I think the big difference is that the lack of DRM on CDs allowed the industry to standardize on the open MP3 format, despite the music industry's best efforts to shut down the makers of the first MP3 players. Once the courts confirmed that CD ripping was legal, it created a thriving ecosystem of software and hardware around the MP3 format, and it made it easier for startup firms like iRiver to jump into the market quickly and produce innovative new products. On the other hand, because DVDs are encumbered with DRM, firms wanting to make digital video devices have to kowtow to Hollywood to get permission to make devices that can play their content—even if the user has already paid for it. Getting Hollywood's permission requires the sort of endless negotiation and bureaucracy that is fatal to a high-tech startup.

You can get a good sense of what we're missing out on by checking out the feature list of the XBox Media Center, an open source software project that has allowed people to use their first-generation XBoxes to play movies and music since 2004. It supports an amazing range of file formats and allows you to store media on the hard drive or stream it from another computer or the Internet. Unfortunately, the DMCA makes it impossible for American consumers to legally transfer their DVD collections (or movies purchased from legal, DRM-encumbered download sites) to the device. If an open source project could turn an ordinary XBox into a full-fledged home media hub in 2004, imagine what a well-funded Silicon Valley startups could have done over the last five years if legal restrictions hadn't been standing in the way.

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  • icon
    chris (profile), 5 Oct 2007 @ 9:28am


    XBMC rules. it's very existence is a shining example of what's wrong with microsoft, hollywood, and the consumer electronics industry.

    no off the shelf gadget in the world can deliver what a modded xbox can. the sooner the powers that be realize that, the sooner they can start delivering useful devices again.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Haywood, 5 Oct 2007 @ 9:30am


    I have a HTPC (Media center) in a stylish case that is the hub of my entertainment center. However, it it wasn't for bit-torrent downloads, I don't see what the point would be. I can just play DVDs with my DVD player, so lacking legal AVIs and such I can see why these and the extenders aren't exactly flying off the shelf. Most of what I download is TV shows from channels I can't get or where there is a conflict with another show. The broadcasters are missing the boat here, the Nielson ratings don't mean so much when you really don't have to chose which show to watch. I just watch both or all 3 depending on just how many desirable shows in a time slot. They are backing up on me though, not enough free time to watch it all, but a lull will come where there is nothing good on and I'll be ready with fresh primetime.

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  • identicon
    drewmerc, 5 Oct 2007 @ 9:31am

    best thing i ever put on my xbox and the only reason its still under my tv

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    matt, 5 Oct 2007 @ 9:44am


    I don't remember the age of it but what of slingbox and similar products? I'm not saying innovation is there; it's not, and yes we can thank closed standards for that.

    However, what I heard from someone who wished to remain anonymous in Hollywood recently is that it's not that places like hollywood don't understand the standards issue, but that it's exactly the opposite. They are stalling because they know they can still milk people via alternate means. I was given the example of how in california they will intentionally "ban" something/use the streisand effect in-state to generate media attention for smaller films. I don't know fi thats necessarily true or not

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  • identicon
    Buzz, 5 Oct 2007 @ 9:44am

    Oh my...

    All I can is this: God bless open source.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Jeffry Houser (profile), 5 Oct 2007 @ 10:50am

    mp3 isn't an open format

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    UniBoy, 5 Oct 2007 @ 10:53am


    You hit a piece of the nail on the head. It is pretty cool what has been done by the open source community. But, keep in mind, Microsoft provided the (heavily subsidized) hardware platform that made that software possible and somewhat popular. I really think the market for these devices will take off when a nice, inexpensive, convergence device shows up - one that can replace the separate Tivo, cable box, DVD setup that most of us have, and support HD. The Apple TV suffers from the same lameness as the XBox and other Windows Media solutions. Possibly, Apple will come through with a revision that fixes it. Interesting article on the subject can be found here: Apple TV Coming Attractions

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    • identicon
      Mike, 5 Oct 2007 @ 7:15pm

      Re: Software+Convergence


      The device exists already. Vista MCE with quad cable cards for 4 show HD recording, HD-DVD & Blu Ray, and Sling Box abilities via Webguide software.

      Imagine recording 4 HD shows from cable at the same time and streaming them to other rooms or to your laptop when on the road.

      There are some differences between makers, but they are Ace Computers, Nivieus, and Inteset. I would suggest the Alienware Hanger 18, but they don't make it. They buy it. Ace has the same thing in their product list. Alienware is a dying breed.

      Oh, you never heard of these companies? Check out Consumer Electronics Pro magazine.

      These products are being installed by custom integrators. It's just time the consumers learn about them.

      Also, like I said in another post, check out and see what else MCE can do.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Bryce, 5 Oct 2007 @ 6:12pm

    It isn't new...

    There were Media Center Extenders for previous versions of Media Center. UPnP MediaRenderer devices have been around for a good five years now -- Gateway even used to make one! What's screwed up is that Vista comes with a UPnP MediaServer that doesn't serve Media Center content.

    And why isn't there an extender client for PCs?

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    • identicon
      Mike, 5 Oct 2007 @ 7:05pm

      Re: It isn't new...

      Hey Bryce,

      You need to clarify your statement. Vista serves up Media Center content very well! So, I don't understand what you are trying to say.

      I distribute Vista MCE content all over the house using small form factor PCs, like the S150 from Ace Computers, plugged into my audio or video equipment. A few of those clients are running XP Home.

      And, what would be the need for an extender for a client PC? An extender IS a client.

      Want to take a look as some really cool stuff you can do with MCE? Check out

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2007 @ 11:58pm


    I think LinuxMCE rocks!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    OSDfanboy, 6 Oct 2007 @ 2:34am

    XBMC been around longer than 2004

    XBMC has been available from 2003 but before that it was called XBMP (Xbox Media Player) and that was availailble as open source from October 2002. XBMP was however completly replaced by XBMC later in 2004.

    Anyway, I think XBMC is great but it is missing a few vital functions to be compared directly to other media extenders and HTPC applications, see this idea of "One common PVR/DVR/HTPC front-end GUI (client)"

    It sums up the missing features which are:
    - Watch Live TV
    - Record Live-TV (on the PC)
    - Watch that recorded TV
    - Schedule recordings
    - Pause Live-TV (time-shift)
    - Listen to AM/FM radio
    - Electronic Program Guide (EPG)
    - View Program Listings

    By the way, know that XBMC is currently being ported to Linux:
    Which means that in 6-months from now you will probably be able to use XBMC on a computer, and mybe in a couple of years from now you will be able to use XBMC on both your Xbox360 and your PlayStation 3 as well.

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  • identicon
    Mark, 8 Oct 2007 @ 11:31am


    Techdirt...get your facts straight. MP3 may be DRM free, but it is far from being an open file format. Do your homework and check things out before you proclaim something is open or not! There is enough confusion out there over open vs free vs proprietary let's not make it any worse.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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