A look at the design and development of Microsoft's new multimedia interface for PCs
this exclusive interview with Joe Belfiore, General
Manager, User Experience, at Microsoft's Windows eHome
Division, we discuss how Windows XP Media Center
Edition--code-named "Freestyle"--evolved over time from
concept to product. Joe has been an instrumental part of
Microsoft's user experience efforts since the first
version of what became Windows NT, and his background
includes user interface work on Windows 95, Internet
Explorer 3 and 4, Windows 98, Windows 2000, Windows XP,
and the new Media Center experience in XP Media Center
I first met Joe at the Windows XP Beta 2 Reviewer's Workshop in February 2001, but remembered him from an IE 3 alpha demonstration in early 1996, when he was working on Microsoft's then-nascent attempts to combine the Windows shell with IE, providing users with a consistent experience between the two navigation paradigms. What struck me most about Joe at the time was his honest excitement and enthusiasm for the work he was doing at Microsoft, and now that I've gotten to know him a bit better since then, I can say that he hasn't changed a bit. Joe is one of those instantly likeable guys, someone I look forward to meeting with.
Since the completion of Windows XP, Joe has moved on to the eHome Division, and in his current position, he helped guide the development of Microsoft's latest XP version, Media Center Edition. I discussed the design and development of Media Center with Joe just after the product's code was finalized. Here's what he had to say.
After Windows 95 shipped, my team and I began working on the Internet Explorer user interface. I became the Group Program Manager for the Internet Explorer 4 integrated shell, which was released both to the Web and as part of Windows 98. The same folks who had been doing the Windows shell did the IE 3 and 4 user interfaces. The idea was that we would combine the Web browser with the Windows shell, so that users could navigate from folders to Web pages and back again with a consistent interface. Then, I worked on Windows 2000, and finally Windows XP, as Product Unit Manager for the Windows user experience.
Let me give you a couple of examples. In Windows XP, I pushed hard for us to do friendly English descriptions of tasks in the My Pictures and My Music folders. At Microsoft, the goal was always about making people more efficient. But this led to too many easily accessible but visually indiscernible icons in toolbars all over the place. Because the PC appeals to more people now, I felt that we needed to find way to communicate capabilities to users in a more conversational way.
Another example is wireless networking. You have to remember that most of the people who work at Microsoft on Windows are sophisticated computer hobbyists. We have to be disciplined, and understand that many of our users are different from us. With wireless, we could have taken the typical route to adding these capabilities, which is to make it possible, add lots of options, and then stop there. It would have worked, but the real value is when you keep going and make it invisible to the user. I try to make the engineers remember that the people who use the products aren't necessarily like us. We need to go the distance to make it easier.
During the development of XP, we had people over to watch the Super Bowl in hi-definition (HD) via the PC, and we were able to get it working, but you had to be engineer to make it happen. I became really interested in that scenario, though, and thought, the PC could be great at this. It's powerful and has the support of innovative third parties, and maybe we could just add capabilities to Windows that would let it work with a remote control, and expose the TV and DVD stuff. It seemed pretty compelling.
Right around that time, the eHome group had started up, so I talked to [Microsoft Corporate Vice President, eHome Division] Mike Toutonghi about making a change. Maybe I could do a different type of user interface work for a while. At the time, the eHome division was experimenting with a strategy of building a PC-architected dedicated device, similar to the Xbox, but aimed at digital media experiences. It would have used the PC architecture, to ensure cheap components and a standard software development environment, and be dedicated to scenarios like music, photos, and movies. But when I joined on, the strategy had changed, because there is now an increasing demand to use the PC in those scenarios. And the openness of the PC business model meant that we could easily add the capabilities we needed, and provide users with more flexibility. We could put the PC in a home office and use it to watch TV, put it in a child's room where it could be used as PC, TV, or stereo, or stick it in the basement with LCD projector. So that represented a shift in strategy.
If you think about the price of PC hardware today, it's easy to see that you can add capabilities and make a device that does everything. It was a perfect fit for me, and it was my opinion for the way to do things as well.
Secondly, a part of the culture of the Windows team is about creating software that enables third parties to add value. So we built Media Center in a way that would allow third parties to enable great new scenarios for users. We've worked with a variety of hardware component vendors, PC makers that will create exciting form factors, and software vendors, which can make games and other experiences that work with the remote and are accessible from the Media Center. That philosophy will make the Media Center more valuable to the industry and end users.
From a technical standpoint, Media Center user interface functionality is almost entirely written in C# managed code, on top of native Win32 and DirectX Windows XP components. These operating system components render video and draw fluid animations smoothly on the screen at 60 frames per second, with hardware acceleration and MPEG decoding provided by 3rd parties. Getting all these technology components to work together well was our biggest challenge.
Secondly, we are really defining a new class of PCs that is more powerful and media savvy--not just another inexpensive PC. We hope the Media Center PC will define a new standard for media capabilities, and enable new innovation in media on personal computers. For example, IEEE-1394 is a great connectivity standard, but many PCs still don't have it, and therefore there is less third-party innovation. With Media Center Edition, we are defining a new category of PCs with a more compelling standard for their capabilities, including more powerful processors, better graphics, DVD, 1394, and so on.
We did those things in the first version, and made it a PC-only product. But as the category gets going, we hope to make it available to people on their existing PCs. But we need PCs to be more powerful and capable out of the box first.
There are also millions of scenarios for software and services. As an example, we're going to post a version of Solitaire on the Web, as a PowerToy, that you can use with a remote. Those types of games are an example, as is Internet Radio, video on demand, and applications that interact with home security systems. There are a lot of possibilities there.
Regarding testing, we have hundreds of people we sent preconfigured PCs, and several hundred at Microsoft that received take home kits for their existing home PCs, probably about a thousand overall. The feedback has been great.
In the short term, we will build on the core digital media experiences that are in the product today. People want to browse the Web, listen to Internet and local radio, and so on. We look at requests from users and testers, and we'll put those features in future versions. And of course third parties will add those kinds of features in as well.