Gaming has long been Microsoft’s wildcard: while the company struggles to find its feet with Windows Phone, and faces a difficult tablet market when its Windows 8 slates finally appear, the Xbox 360 continues to sell strongly. Now Xbox TV has arrived to not only reassure 360-owning gamers that they made the right console choice, but broaden the 360′s appeal to a whole new segment. It’s not entirely fashionable to praise Microsoft, especially when it’s over something that, buried in the company’s history books, they’ve tried and failed at before. Smart TV has suffered the usual ignominies and from the usual flaws: sluggish hardware, confusing interface, dawdling internet connections. Now, with Xbox LIVE TV, all the pieces seem finally to be coming together.
Microsoft isn’t alone in that, mind. Apple’s television intentions are well-rumored, with the latest batch describing a Siri-powered trio of HDTV sets that use the virtual personal assistant technology to streamline navigation through cable, free-to-air, on-demand and recorded content. Google TV, meanwhile, has had the advantage of being on the market, but that’s about the only positive thing you can say so far. Its complex first-gen interface could well have been all the inspiration Microsoft required to push ahead with Kinect-powered speech and gesture control.
A Siri-powered TV isn’t here yet. Google TV v2.0 is yet to convince that it can deliver not only on usability with its pared-down but still technically-focused UI, but on content and access deals with providers that have proved to be wary of the Google-powered free-for-all. An Xbox 360 costs $299.99 with a Kinect thrown in the box, and you can buy one today.
"Anything I buy for home entertainment purposes has to satisfy that all-important spousal-approval factor"
I’m no gamer. I fall well outside the target audience for an Xbox 360 – or a PS3, or, despite what Nintendo might hope to convince me about “casual” gaming, a Wii – at least until today. And yet, Microsoft’s comprehensive roadmap of content partners (notable for not limiting itself to merely the US audience, too) has me reconsidering. The straightforward Kinect-based control holds no small amount of appeal, too, since anything I buy for home entertainment purposes has to satisfy that all-important spousal-approval factor.
Last Christmas I bought my parents a Blu-ray player. Not because of the Blu-ray support, but because it was internet-connected: through it they would be able to access BBC iPlayer along with other UK on-demand TV show services, in addition to streaming movies and other content. Yes, I could’ve strung across some sort of A/V connection from their PC, which just so happens to be in the same room, but the idea was to make it easier to access IPTV, not force them to jump between computer and TV.
I’m not entirely sure how much they’ve actually used it, however; I’d wager less than once a month since I first plugged it in for them last December. Sony’s Blu-ray UI is neatly familiar with that of its PS3, but since my parents aren’t gamers that’s not exactly given them a head-start. How much simpler to merely instruct their TV to search through the various on-demand services. They don’t care whether they’re talking to the TV, or actually to a Kinect sensor bar plugged into an Xbox 360, or whatever: all they’re bothered about is that, rather than having to stab at buttons on a cluttered, confusing remote, they can pull up any shows they like.
Where next? Live TV is the obvious answer; Boxee has shown that by adding a cheap USB TV tuner it can instantly bolster its streaming media service with access to what’s on right now. Even with the tuner, the Boxee Box won’t allow for PVR-style video recording, but Microsoft has a lengthy history of offering time-shifting and scheduled recordings with its Media Center PCs.
A less gaming-centric design might be the stage after that, again something that has been rumored in recent months. According to next-gen Xbox speculation, Microsoft is readying not one but two models of “Xbox 720″: an all-singing, all-dancing flagship, to sate the demands of needy gamers, and a more streamlined, cheaper alternative that targets the set-top box crowd.
"There’s a sense that Microsoft is finally getting to grips with the value of platform integration"
Finally, there’s a sense that Microsoft is finally getting to grips with the value of platform integration, something Apple has long held the advantage in. The Xbox LIVE update tomorrow will bring a new UI to the console for gamers, as well as the Xbox TV functionality, but also see Windows Phone brought comprehensively into the fold with a free companion app for smartphones. Rather than just showing your scores and your Xbox LIVE avatar, there’ll finally be a reason to have your Windows Phone to hand while you’re watching TV, with the smartphone acting as a remote as well as showing information on what’s playing and more.
Xbox’s huge established user-base gives Microsoft an instant IPTV footprint Google could only dream of. The Kinect sensor, though not supporting such advanced voice recognition as Siri, has the benefit of being here today, not somewhere in the pipeline. Microsoft may have its faults, but in smart TV it’s definitely doing something right.