Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Interview with Jeff Kardatzke CTO and Founder of SageTV - Part 2

 Jeff Kardatzke SageTV InterviewSageTV Logo

This is part 2 of the Jeff Kardatzke, SageTV interview, you will find Part 1 of the interview here.


I recently had the opportunity to spend an hour discussing SageTV and Home Theater PCs with Jeff Kardatzke, the CTO and co-founder of HTPC company, SageTV.  In preparation for the interview I polled SageTV users and Twitter users alike for things they would like to know about the goings on at SageTV.  I took many of those questions as well as some of my own and the result was some very interesting insight into the past, present and future of SageTV the product and company. 


The interview was a long one and talked about many interesting things related to SageTV and HTPCs.  Things like:

  • What is the status of Hulu in SageTV?  What about other Online Content?
  • What's next for SageTV?  Version 7 talk included
  • Wireless N coming soon at a SageTV HD Theater
  • Blu-Ray support on the SageTV HD Theater
  • The User Interface - What plans does SageTV have to refresh the SageTV UI?
  • A promising, new product coming soon to make setting up a HTPC server easier

Read on for that as well as other items of interest for Home Theater PC fans and especially SageTV users.

Online Video and Radio - The Hulu Question.  Online Radio Possibly Coming:

Brent: Moving on to Online Video/Radio, SageTV was one of the first HTPC programs to add online video to its product - you can browse and view YouTube, Google Video, podcasts and other content right within SageTV now.  But there are some very popular types of online content you cannot currently get from within SageTV without 3rd party plugins and extra setup.  How important do you see the role of online video and audio content support for SageTV now and in the future.

Jeff:  "It’s definitely important, but it’s something you have to be careful with in terms of what you try to promise there.  A lot of this online content delivery is going to change and be restricted as time goes on."

Brent: I know you demo'd Hulu playback within SageTV earlier this year at CES. Has the built-in Hulu playback been shelved for SageTV since the Boxee/Hulu war broke out?

Jeff:  "We are hoping there is some way to deliver Hulu content but we haven’t found a way to do it reliably and are not sure Hulu would support that."

EDITORS NOTE:  I got a clear indication that SageTV has stopped development on Hulu for the time being and it seems (my speculation) directly related to what happened with Boxee.  They left the door open that someday it might be added back, but for now don't expect anything further in my opinion.  Almost to further enforce SageTV's reasoning on this topic, Hulu blocked Playstation 3 Hulu playback after this interview took place - much like Hulu did on Boxee.

Brent: I know Netflix for instance has looked at putting their movie/tv streaming software on more and more consumer electric devices. Is Netflix Watch-Instantly, Amazon Online, Pandora, Slacker or any other popular online content providers possibilities?

Jeff:  "Yes we’re looking into some of that. Certain ones involve DRM (Digital Rights Management) which changes how some of this stuff would need to work possibly. The online radio we’re definitely looking into that more to add some of that at some point later this year.  We would start with some of the free stuff"

DRM, The move from Analog to Digital and More

Brent: You mentioned DRM (Digital Rights Management) - I'm not sure, but I think the hardware inside HD100 and HD200 can't handle DRM, is that a conscious decision to not handle or support DRM playback?

Jeff:  "Actually those boxes can do DRM since they have security processors in them. At some points along the way it has been a conscious choice and at other points it’s just been better for our consumers to avoid DRM in those ways. We try to empower the consumer to get access to their purchased media collection and when you have DRM involved there’s so much more complication you can create a lot of dissatisfaction from your customers... When we add that kind of stuff into the product, we need to do it in a way that doesn’t cause issues like this for our customers – because we don’t want people to have a negative experience and that in many cases is what DRM has caused... That being said we do respect DRM and copywrite law of course."

Brent: With the move towards digital from analog on CableTV networks like Comcast for instance are limiting HTPCs in a way that forces us to use QAM tuners or Hauppauge HD-PVRs to tune and record non-analog and encrypted content.  Microsoft's solution was the Microsoft MediaCenter CableCard although this solution limits you in many ways as well.  How does this move to digital affect SageTV in the long-term. Are there any possible solutions to make this easier for the end-user?

Jeff:  "I’m not sure what’s going to be happening in that area. CableCard is a tricky thing and can be quite costly. It's also not easy or cheap to do so it requires a company with pretty deep pockets like Microsoft to do that. "

"While we are always looking for more ways to solve this problem, the Hauppauge HD-PVR has been working as a good solution for many people – some have had some problems, but there are a lot of customers very happy using it – I use it myself and don’t have any problems. That is really the Hi-def recording solution now. When you take the Hauppauge HD-PVR Combined with what is available on clear QAM it usually works very well. But of course the QAM stuff is changing. It’s almost like the old days when everything was done with a PVR 150 or 250 recording off of the cable box. "

Brent: I use the Hauppauge HD-PVR and it’s taken me a little time to get it working just right and part of that was getting FireWire for channel changing set up.  It's an excellent solution with lots of flexibility, but its definitely more difficult to set up.

Jeff:  "Is the FireWire something that made it difficult?  Windows doesn't "like" FireWire but it is possible.  I should mention that the Linux Media Server coming soon will have FireWire support built into it.  Also we’ve re-written the IR blaster on Linux for it and that works better than the windows blaster software. When you do have FireWire working to change channels with the HD-PVRs it does work really well."

EDITORS NOTE:  I am using the Hauppauge HD-PVR to tune all digital content (including encrypted ones) and it has been working great.  I think some of the more recent updates to SageTV software, updates to the Hauppauge HD-PVR firmware and especially firewire for channel changing has made it mostly rock-solid.  As I alluded to, firewire was a pain to setup though - I'll have a post on how I did it in the future.

SageTV User Interface - What's Next?

Brent: You mentioned "User Interface" earlier and I wanted to touch on it a little more. As I was preparing for this interview I asked for suggested questions at the SageTV forums and you know what the most popular question was?  “What are you going to do with the UI?” was by far the one that nearly everyone wanted to know.  So what are your plans/thoughts for changing the SageTV UI to compete with other HTPC's flashy UI's?

Jeff:  "Why doesn’t everyone just go and use Studio and make their own UI?   Just kidding of course…  SageTV Studio does give you that ability but we are working on improving the UI look, feel and usability."

EDITORS NOTE:  For those that don't know already, I want to point out that there are certainly many UI choices available for SageTV today - and that is what Jeff was referring to above.  The SageTV Studio program built-in to SageTV allows developers to modify the UI and functionally in many ways and several add-ons do this already today such as Sage Movie Wall and SageMC.  But of course everyone wants to know what the main software, SageTV will do for UI going forward:

Jeff:  "We are definitely looking into addressing a lot of the concerns in the UI.  So many times I wonder, “what do people actually want?”  The current UI is very powerful and can do a lot of stuff really well. Yeah it’s not as flashy as Windows Media Center but that also is a very unfair comparison. Because Windows Media Center - especially Windows 7 Media Center runs on a Windows 7 box or Vista Box that has to be how powerful?  Compared to what has to run on the HD200 that has a 300 Mhz processor on it – not 3 Ghz, but 300 Mhz and uses a fraction of the power a PC uses."

"The media extender mode has similar stuff where you have a server serving multiple clients/extenders simultaneously doing all of that work. So if we have to make more limitations maybe.  We don’t have 3D graphics processors in these HD200s, we do have hardware accelerations, but its 2D not 3D.  That’s a limitation we have to deal with that they don’t.  And that’s one of the things that we know we can’t go as far as they’ve gone, but we can definitely do more as we’ve seen with SageMC – SageMC runs on the HD200 just as well and has different effects on it.  But a lot of it is trying to figure out what really is everyone looking for."

"Also we want retain the things we like about the current UI in that transition. Some of that stuff we do know what people want, but other things we’re still trying to understand."

Brent: What I think a lot of people are looking for is an updated look and feel - something that significantly updates the UI, but keeps much of the powerful function in the current UI. That’s difficult to define in a conversation, but I think it is mostly what people are looking for. 

EDITORS NOTE:  I'll be walking through the UI discussion in more detail in future posts on GeekTonic with the hope that we'll see a lot of feedback from readers and provide some definite focus and suggestions to the SageTV team.

In the conversation, I definitely got the point that Jeff and therefore SageTV the company really does want to understand the main things that would make people happier with the user interface.


Easier Plugin Installation - Integration of Popular Plugins into Core:

Brent: One of the things I liked from the Meedio HTPC program I used years ago was a plugin manager that gave the user a list of plugins right from the UI. You could view the plugins, preview the plugins and download and install right from the UI. Is that something you’ve looked at?

Jeff:  "Yes we have, but there’s a fear associated with that. That if we give access to plugins that readily people will use them right away and they will create stability issues for themselves and in the end create a poor user experience. And I’ll tell you why I think that, Pablo from Meedio told me that was the biggest problem they had. Many of their problems was that feature."

"It’s a warning – you have to be careful there. If you make that stuff readily available you’re going to have to support it. And we can’t support everyone's plugins. We write all of our own code and deal with that. To support everyone else's code that they write – not always with the same level of standards (now some with no question write very good code, but some write it up and never support it again.)"

Brent: Maybe a simple installer as an alternative.

Jeff:  "There have been some developers in the community who have approached me about that...  there is some work in that area so there could possibly be something like that in the future"

Brent: There’s a lot of really good customizations available for SageTV.  Certain of these always I recommend as must-install plugins like the webserver. Has there been any thought of borrowing from those concepts and building into the core or getting permission to include in the SageTV core to make the install easier and better.

Jeff:  "We’ve looked into some of that.  We have to be mindful that once we integrate something like that we have to support, bug any code etc. Some of the stuff that’s written well and contained like Nielm’s webserver for example.  There’s also some GPL distribution issues where developers use code we can’t use, but mostly it’s maintenance as the problem we run into"

Brent: For international EPGs a 3rd party guide is used mostly. Have you looked into including any international EPGs into the software?

Jeff:  "Yes we have - unfortunately they are extremely expensive; we’re not planning on integrating with EPG servers outside of US and Canada. But we do have support for extracting EPG data from DVB-TS MC signals so depending on the country your in – like Sweden they have 2 weeks of the data in the stream. And that’s becoming more commonplace. Hopefully that’s going to be a trend worldwide and that will become less of an issue."


About Jeff's Home SageTV Setup:

Brent: A couple of quick questions about you. It sounds like you use SageTV in your home?

Jeff:  "I’ve been using SageTV in my home since 2001 - even before it was SageTV. And here’s the other thing - do you know who the first alpha tester was? It was my fiancé and we’re still together after that."

Brent: Now that’s true WAF (wife-acceptance factor) in play there.  So what is your most used SageTV feature beyond for testing?  Do you use SageTV to listen to music, movies or some other way?

Jeff:  "Watching TV is the most used feature...  I also use SageTV for music, movies etc. of course."

Brent: On your main setup how many tuners do you use & which ones?  How much disk storage?

Jeff: "I have a four-tuner system on the Linux usb raid-5 server. 2 HD-PVRs and 1 HDHR so all external. Raid 5 for the storage with 1.5 Terabytes and another array with 0.75 of a TB so 2.25 TB total."

Brent: Have you ever used the SageMC add-on?

Jeff:  "Yes, I used it for a couple of months. Because of testing for the default SageTV I can’t use it full-time."


In closing Jeff reiterated that SageTV "loves their users" and "keeping those customers" is extremely important.  I think for a small company, the people at SageTV work hard to meet their customers needs and wants and that's one of the really special things about their software and company.  Yes they do have limits on what they can or cannot do as all companies do, but their responsiveness to fixing/improving things and adding requested features on a regular basis is something you just don't see often with their competitors.

I want to extend my sincere thanks to Jeff for taking time to share with me and all GeekTonic readers - it is very appreciated.  And thanks to the folks on the SageTV forums and twitter for giving me many great questions to ask Jeff.


I'll be discussing/addressing many of the new features, news, UI discussion and other topics raised by this interview in the coming days at GeekTonic so be sure and subscribe so you don't miss anything.