The obituary might begin something like this: “After years of failing health, Windows Media Center passed away on July 29, 2015. A long-time resident of Windows and known to friends as WMC, Windows Media Center was left out of Windows 10 by Microsoft. WMC will be missed by system builders who used it to construct custom media servers …”
Count Ben Lye, CEO of Indianapolis-based system builders Assassin HTPC and Helix Media Systems, among those lamenting the loss of Windows Media Center. In 2012, he did about a half-million dollars in sales in custom, high-end home theater PCs, due, in part, to WMC’s capabilities. “WMC was, and still is, the favorite for live TV,” Lye says. “It was by far the easiest and most pleasurable live TV option out there.”
The demise of Windows Media Center was a drawn-out affair. Microsoft stopped actively developing it in 2009. By 2014, Lye recalls, plugins were not being updated and third-party applications were falling away one by one.
Lye’s preferred solution today is still a Windows 7 server with zone players running the ServerWMC Kodi client. That arrangement offers movie and TV show library functionality while preserving the best live TV capabilities, according to Lye. “NextPVR [from New Zealand-based NextPVR Technologies] is probably the closest alternative we have to a successor. However, there is still a lot of distance between the two,” Lye says, explaining that the setup of NextPVR takes some advanced knowledge and tweaking.
That explains, in part, why Lye’s custom media server business is comparable today to that of 2012. The disappearance of Windows Media Center has confused consumers, prompting some to turn to experts like Assassin HTPC.
Streaming Services to Blame?
Dale J. Sanders, president and system designer at Custom Media Systems LLC of Minnetonka, Minn., adds that designing and selling custom media centers and servers based on Windows Media Center was very lucrative. However, that market started to decline well in advance of WMC’s passing. “This [decline] was primarily fueled by the vast selection of high-quality streaming services available to consumers, such as Hulu, Netflix, and now Amazon Prime Video,” Sanders says. “Microsoft’s cancellation of WMC is simply the final nail in the coffin.”
He began migrating his customers away from Windows Media Center years ago. Today he’s a fan of Plex Media Server software from Plex Inc. One big reason, he says, is that this approach offers the ability to stream media outside of the home. Another is that it enables a much richer music experience for the user, even with large music libraries.
Sanders reports that his server business volume has not changed with the transition to a new custom media server platform. However, his profitability has doubled. He attributes this to spending less time building and configuring systems, in part because Plex works with many off-the-shelf products like most new smart TVs, as well as iOS and Android devices. This eases Sander’s build/configure burden and also makes it less likely customers will encounter problems and need help.
As for advice for those considering entering this business, Sanders says the biggest competition may be end users themselves, who have access to many different streaming service options. To be successful, custom media servers must be designed and built with the right storage, be tolerant of drive failures, have sufficient horsepower, and be correctly connected to the right network. Finally, the customer should not have to fret about common tasks. “Adding content to the server should be easy and intuitive and not require a computer science degree,” Sanders says.
Lye notes that software and hardware now enable all-in-one solutions that are both powerful and cheap. To prosper in this market, system builders have to be nimble. “To compete against the big guys, you have to be flexible, offer something they wouldn't ever dream of because they couldn't support it with their big infrastructure, and pay attention and adapt to market changes quickly,” he says.
HANK HOGAN is a freelance writer based in Albuquerque, N.M.