Microsoft is set to demonstrate some new devices from partners running a stripped down version of Windows 7 with the Media centre interface, according to reports today. It appears that Microsoft is no longer willing to sit out the interactive TV resurgence being led by Apple, Google, and others.But this probably isn’t a new OS or a new strategy. Back in April, Microsoft announced and began beta testing Windows Embedded Standard 7*, a version of Windows 7 that is split up into discrete components. Device manufacturers can pick and choose the components they want to use in devices ranging from TV set-top boxes to gaming devices to fuel pumps. (Yes, fuel pumps–it’s right there on the site.) Microsoft did the same thing with Windows XP, and it’s a nice little business for the company, probably booking a couple hundred million in revenue per year.
In April, Microsoft announced that Windows Embedded Standard 7 would include the Windows Media centre interface as an available component. So device makers who want to make digital video recorders or other connected TV devices can use Media centre to let users remote-control the box, record TV shows, view certain Web video content, and so on. The experience will be familiar to users who have played with the Media centre interface in the full version of Windows.
The problem with this strategy is the same as the problem with Microsoft’s tablet strategy so far. Instead of exercising control over the user interface and hardware, Microsoft simply throws a multipurpose OS over the wall to its hardware partners and lets them run with it. As a result, the user experience isn’t consistent. For instance, the first two devices shown running the OS, from Acer and Asus, didn’t even support the CableCARD standard, meaning they could only pick up and record over-the-air TV signals. Who’s going to abandon their cable company’s built-in DVR for that?
The throw-it-over-the-wall approach has been tremendously successful in the PC world, where there’s a multitude of different hardware specifications and hundreds of thousands of available applications, and where users expect–even embrace–some inconsistency.
But in the world of consumer electronics, it’s been a non-starter so far. That’s why Microsoft basically abandoned that approach with Windows Phone 7, where it dictated everything from the start menu to the layout of the buttons.
*Confusingly, Windows Embedded Standard is completely different from Windows Embedded Compact, which was formerly known as Windows CE. Embedded Compact runs on ARM processors (as well as Intel processors like desktop Windows and Embedded Standard does), and is designed for disconnected low-power devices, like smartphones. It’s the basis of Windows Phone 7, and Windows Mobile before it.
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