Where Is Microsoft?

An announcement last week that Macrovision has changed it’s name to “Rovi” (which was cleverly extracted from the middle of its old name) got me to thinking. According to a story in TWICE, the company is focusing on “a new multi-faceted integrated graphical user interface” that lets users find and view content from a variety of sources, including local storage, the Internet, and traditional broadcast services such as cable or over-the-air television. Rovi is building this system so that it can be incorporated into televisions and other consumer electronic devices.

This is a great idea as I have not yet found an interface that really accomplishes all this well. Microsoft’s Media Center is intended to reside on a stand-alone computer which is supposed to work as the entertainment hub for your living room, but it has many shortcomings and is not particularly easy to use. I’ve used Hauppauge’s tuner and DVR software, but it’s a patchwork of separate applications that is not that user-friendly unless you come at it from a strong computing perspective. Our old (and now useless since we watch TV over the air) Panasonic analog DVR was pretty good at showing the recorded shows, but it was stuck in chronological order. I have seen demos of other interfaces — such as the Digeo Moxi — which have been pretty good, including ways to search for recorded content, but are still designed to reside in separate boxes.

The answer really seems to be to create embedded systems in our televisions that can access all this content and make it easy for us to find it. Most of the manufacturers are starting to support Internet connectivity such as Yahoo! Widgets and Netflix streaming movies directly in their sets. But why isn’t Microsoft in the middle of creating these embedded systems? Yes, it can be argued that Apple seems to know more about designing a good user interface, but the company seems to prefer to control the entire system, including the hardware, software, and delivery service. And I don’t see Apple getting into the HDTV market in a big way any time soon.

So that leaves Microsoft. The company puts a lot of effort into embedded systems, so it would seem that they would have sufficient expertise to come up with something that would work. True, the Media Center interface falls short on some counts, but it’s a start. Why don’t Samsung and LG and Sharp HDTVs boast about a “Microsoft Interface” inside?

My best guess is that competition in the flat panel TV market remains dominated by minimizing price, and that Microsoft would probably want more money for their software than the current pricing would support. But I expect that we’ll be entering a period within the next year or two where prices will start to flatten out, and feature sets for flat panel HDTVs will become more or less identical. (This is what happened to the personal computer market five to ten years ago, and the HDTV market seems to be following a similar trajectory.) At that point, manufacturers will become hungry for differentiation, and a software giant like Microsoft would have the opportunity to establish the new standard. So I find it puzzling that they aren’t getting their foot in the door now. Could it be that Rovi will be the next Microsoft, using consumer electronics interfaces as their springboard, just as Microsoft did with the personal computer 28 years ago?