Ashton Mills looks at the versioning of Windows 8 -- and how this will have some unintended consequences for media playback.
Ever since Windows XP, Microsoft has copped a lot of flak when it comes to the different versions of Windows -- more so with the release of Vista and 7 -- with Redmond seemingly intent on making the widest range of confusing product variations. Both Vista and 7 sport six different core editions each, not including the 'N', upgrade or x64 versions on top of these. It's one 'feature' Apple loyalists happily point to in comparison to Apple's simple single Mac OS X version at each release.
Along with every other area of Windows 8 that has garnered scrutiny for Microsoft, thankfully the number and range of editions is also on the cards -- we're not quite at a simple single edition yet but according to Brandon LeBlanc, one of Microsoft's communications managers, Windows 8 has been trimmed down to just three simple versions: Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, and Windows RT.
There is, naturally, some discussion around these. First, a breakdown of what you get in the box:
- Windows 8 - the core OS in 32-bit or 64-bit flavour, much as you're seeing and using now with the Windows 8 Consumer Preview.
- Windows 8 Pro - bundles Windows 8 with extra features for 'professionals' (or enthusiasts) and business such as encryption (both filesystem and BitLocker), domain connectivity, virtualisation support (including client support and booting from a VHD), remote desktop host support and PC management.
- Windows RT - somewhat confusingly named in relation to WinRT, which is the Windows Runtime that's integral to all versions of Windows 8 itself, Windows RT is the first version of flagship Windows for the ARM architecture. It's designed for low-power ARM-based tablets and can't be purchased standalone -- it's destined for OEMs to be preinstalled. It has almost all the same features as Windows 8 with one significant difference: it also bundles in Microsoft Office (Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote). However, and importantly, traditional x86 Windows apps (i.e., everything ever made for Windows to date) won't run on the ARM version and vice versa. This is presumably why Windows RT comes with the ARM version of Office -- it won't be available as a separate product, and conceivably bundling it for tablets is an extra value-add.
It's interesting to note how the breakdown has moved from core features and media support with previous versions of Windows to platform support between x86 and ARM -- and with Windows RT not available to the public, it basically leaves just two versions.
Well, mostly. It's never quite that simple is it? First, though we haven't heard much about it, there will be an Enterprise version for big business and secondly, and quite significantly, there is one feature absent from all versions: Windows Media Center.
It's significant not because everyone might want or need Windows Media Center to run their own media playback box for the lounge room, but because features such as DVD playback and digital TV only come with Windows Media Center now, and it comes at an extra cost -- this means Windows 8, much like Linux with a fresh install, can't play DVDs out of the box.
While the Windows 8 Preview currently features Media Center, with the final release unless you opt to buy what Microsoft is calling the Windows 8 Media Center Pack or the Windows 8 Pro Pack (an upgrade for Windows 8 to Windows 8 Pro), your Windows 8 won't be able to play back your DVD collection or let you watch digital TV. Currently, Microsoft has not announced the pricing for these upgrade packs, but says they will be 'economical'.
It's also important to note that Microsoft seems oblivious to the confusion this creates with the upgrade packs: buying the Windows 8 Media Center Pack will give Media Center for Windows 8 Pro users, but Windows 8 users need to buy the Windows 8 Pro Pack to get Media Center. The Pro pack also upgrades them to Windows 8 Pro, which means 'Windows 8 Pro' can refer to the Pro edition of Windows 8 both with and without Media Center, depending which path a user takes. There's no standard naming convention and doesn't guarantee what features a user can expect if they find a 'Pro' edition on a PC that doesn't actually include Media Center. Importantly, it's not possible to get Windows 8 with Media Center, you need to buy the Pro pack, which includes functionality like domain connectivity, virtualisation support and BitLocker, even if you don't intend to use these.
Upgrade path for Media Center Support.
The problem with licences
But why do you need Media Center -- again largely used for media streaming, playback and recording for the lounge room -- to play DVDs or watch digital TV?
For Microsoft it comes down to a split between functionality and cost. According to Microsoft's metrics, video entertainment is increasingly being consumed through online sources: services like YouTube, Netflix, Hulu and others. For this Microsoft wants to ensure Windows 8 can play back these sources, and so includes the appropriate codecs to do so.
And while this still requires royalty payments, DVD playback, Blu-ray playback and digital TV decoding (such as DBV-T/S) requires further payments for the appropriate licensed codecs (for example, DVD and Blu-ray requires royalties to Dolby Laboratories). Previously Microsoft has footed the bill for some of this (or, technically, it's included in the purchase price you paid for the OS), but the company is no longer willing to do so. Part of the reason is that Windows 8 is designed to run on a greater variety of platforms, including tablets, and licensing these codecs will cost considerably more given the extra editions Microsoft expects to sell across all platforms, some of which (like tablets) don't even have optical drives. So why pay for what may not even be used?
As a result, if you need DVD or digital TV support you'll need to either buy the Windows 8 Media Center Pack, or opt for one of the many third-party solutions available to provide this functionality -- something which has always been required for Blu-ray playback regardless. And, in fact, Microsoft has said that it's happy to offload this to third-party applications (which themselves will have had to pay royalties).
Hopefully, however, this will translate to a slightly cheaper product price given license royalties are no longer required. And to its credit, while Microsoft could have created a 'Windows 8 with Media Center' edition, by keeping it as an optional paid upgrade we get to have just the two standard versions of Windows 8 that make it easy to choose what version is right for you (minus, perhaps, the confusion between Windows 8 Pro and Windows 8 Pro that happens to include Media Center from an upgrade pack).
What if you already have DVD playback support in Windows 7 and upgrade? According to Microsoft, you're out of luck -- DVD licensing royalties don't carry forward to future Windows versions, and so upgrading to Windows 8 will disable any current support you have unless, again, you purchase the Media Center upgrade pack.
Finally it's worth noting that, even if you've purchase the Media Center upgrade for Windows 8, you still will only be able to play DVDs or watch digital TV in Media Center -- the classic Media Player you've come to know in Windows 7 won't be able to play DVDs in Windows 8, even if the required codecs are installed.
DVD playback in Media Player is set to be a thing of the past.
Looking at the fallout
Somewhat understandably this created a bit of a furore on the Microsoft blogs from users expressing disappointment at the move (perhaps exemplified by a user who said, with a play on Metro, "Touch is great, except when you're out of it!"), and while slowly phasing out (and paying for) DVD support makes some sense, Blu-ray is now the de facto for physical media and is interesting Microsoft didn't go the route of adding Blu-ray playback to Windows 8, as many third-party products have their own interfaces inconsistent with Windows (and, especially now, Metro). An integrated solution would have been better, and for which Windows Media Player is ripe. Would users pay extra for DVD playback? Maybe, depending on their DVD collection. Blu-ray playback? More likely, given its role as the new standard.
Also raised was the issue of requiring Media Center to play back these formats, as opposed to simply upgrading Media Player. Microsoft says it's doing it this way to avoid confusion over a DVD-enabled version of Media Player and one without, but it would seem (to us, at least) incredibly simple to allow Media Player to optionally use the codecs if they're installed from the Media Center upgrade pack instead of requiring the need to run the full-blown Media Center instead. And this is to say nothing of digital broadcast TV support -- we've spent plenty of hours with digital TV running in a window on the background of our desktop while we work, something that will be no more with Windows 8 (and that's just with the traditional desktop, let alone Metro).
The other side of the coin, of course, is those that do love using Media Center for a lounge room media playback and recording device will now need to buy the Pro version, or the Pro pack, and get -- and pay for -- a whole bunch of features such as domain connectivity and virtualisation support that a lounge room media box simply doesn't need. For all the advances Windows 8 has made so far that we've covered in these pages, it would seem that Redmond's decisions over Windows 8 versioning and features is perhaps missing the point the on a number of levels.
And as before, now that Windows 8 is now no more functional than Linux out of the box for media playback, it's only going to strengthen Linux (especially in regard to media centre functionality) with products like XBMC -- with the exception that enabling DVD support in Linux is free.
It's worth remembering, of course, that Windows 8 is still in beta and it will be interesting to see if any of this changes prior to the final release.