The Last Big Bite

This is the tale of two companies whose products you likely interact with on a daily basis. Two companies that aim to capture the Holy Grail of the consumer electronics world: your living room. One company has had great success with its mission, while the other one has repeatedly failed.

The companies are Apple and Microsoft.

On the one hand you have Apple, a company whose product launches routinely make national headlines. Apple turned the entire custom installation touch-panel control market on its head with the release of the iPad, selling more units in a few weeks than every other company combined had sold… ever! Virtually every new A/V product that comes out now has a control app designed for an iOS device or a “designed for iPod” logo silkscreened on its front.

On the other hand there’s Microsoft, a company that once enjoyed a Vader-like chokehold on the OS market so powerful that it seemed it could never be questioned. But try as it might, Microsoft can’t seem to make that break into the living room. It started on this path by purchasing a company called WebTV in 1997. Next came UltimateTV, a DirecTV receiver with a built-in DVR and Internet connection, in 2000. Microsoft accelerated its push into the living room with the addition of Windows Media Center to its OS in 2002. Media Center was supposed to be a kinder, gentler version of Windows that could handle all of your music, videos, photos, and even TV recording, providing that “10-foot experience” where you could just sit back and control everything from your couch. And while the market has seen many “Home Theater PCs,” few people really bit, partially because all of the reviews (mine included) felt that HTPCs were just not… quite… ready for prime time. In 2005, Microsoft tried to “sneak” its way into your living room through the back door via the Media Center Extender features built into its Xbox 360 console. But the Xbox 360 ultimately proved unable to gain a real foothold as anything more than a gaming system.

Microsoft additionally made a push to embrace the custom install industry as a founding member of the Media Center Integrator Alliance (2008), along with such industry biggies as AMD, Crestron, HP, and Intel. This group tried to establish a system of best practices and to raise awareness of the installation possibilities. But while there were some high-profile jobs, HTPCs and Media Center Extenders ended up being far more niche than mainstream, and custom installers barely use them. Microsoft has updated Media Center with each Windows release, though it looks like it will become an optional add-on starting with the forthcoming Windows 8.

One technology really seems to sum up the difference between the two companies. When I say “AirPlay,” you probably think of that wonderful Apple innovation that lets you easily beam tunes wirelessly to compatible devices. But when I say, “Play To,” what comes to mind? Probably, “What are you talking about? Play To what?” Play To is an AirPlay-like feature that’s part of every Windows 7 PC and that every DLNA-certified component is compatible with. It’s actually a very cool Windows 7 feature that I had absolutely no idea existed. Turns out my Marantz AV7005 preamp/processor and PS3 could both handle Play To all along. Who knew? Right-click on a song, select Play To and the target device, and music starts playing. Sounds exactly like AirPlay, right?

When Apple develops a new feature, it promotes it with great fanfare, and it becomes the next big thing that everyone has to have. But when Windows does something very similar — Play To has been around since Win7 came out in 2009! — it gets little (if any) attention. Maybe the difference between Apple and Microsoft has less to do with who makes the better, more innovative products and more to do with who’s the better marketer and hypemaker. In that contest, I’m not sure Microsoft can ever catch up.