Microsoft’s Xbox One: the battle for Input One
Microsoft’s announcement event for the Xbox One did little to negate the strong narrative brewing amongst so-called “core” gamers: that Sony has their best interests at heart while Microsoft are pursuing a broader market that compromises traditional games in the name of offering broader features like media integration and Kinect. What it did offer, though, was a single clear message: Microsoft want to own the default input channel for your TV. It wants everything you do on your television — watching live TV, renting movies, playing games — to come through a box it controls, so that wherever possible it can encourage you to buy content from Xbox Live in preference to your cable firm’s pay-per-view, iTunes, Amazon, or any of the other multitude of competing services.
This is not a new concept. Owning input one has long been the justification behind the rumours/wishful thinking of an Apple TV. Certainly, making an entire TV is one way to guarantee that your company is in the driving seat. Microsoft have ducked that approach, though, and stuck with the traditional set top box approach instead.
The difficulty with set top boxes is getting at live TV. The juicy stuff — the most recent Game of Thrones episode, the live football game — is jealously locked up behind a complex and expensive web of international viewing rights that has so far defeated the likes of Apple and Amazon. If you want the best stuff, consumers still need a cable box, and that cable box is probably going to be on input one — it’ll be consumer’s natural first choice.
So how has Microsoft squared that circle? It’s the HDMI input jack on the back of the console. By integrating this, Microsoft hopes to turn the cable box into a slave device - something you only access through the Xbox, not instead of it. Effectively, your premium TV subscription will become just another service your Xbox can show to you, sitting alongside the likes of Netflix today.
The icing on the cake for users is that Microsoft is going to integrate a rich TV guide experience (remember, as Wes Miller reminded me, that Microsoft already has this data — with good international coverage — for Windows Media Center) which is navigated via some slick voice and gesture controls. That part certainly looks good in demos, although I’m rather cynical about how tedious it’ll be to wave my arms around to change channel in practice — it’s hard to make any physical gesture as straightforward as tapping a few buttons on a remote control.
[Update: vg247 reports that live TV integration will be US-only at launch.]
I also have some questions about how well this can actually work in practice. How will the cable TV firms feel about being relegated to secondary devices? One could imagine, for example, that pay-per-view movie rentals would drop off as customers naturally reached first for Microsoft’s movie streaming service.
I’m also curious about how it works on a technical level. I understand that the cable box pushes a signal out of its HDMI output and the Xbox displays that on the screen, perhaps as a straight passthrough or perhaps with some added frippery like the ability to run Internet Explorer alongside your video content (which I think sounds utterly hateful, but I’m a fuddy duddy).
But with the Xbox guide presumably completely supplanting my DVR’s interface, how to do I program shows to record? How do I select those recorded shows for playback? I’m sure the Xbox is going to be leveraging HDMI control channels to do what it can (although note the IR output jack, presumably for interoperating with more primitive devices) but I don’t believe DVRs can be programmed via HDMI. Tricks like buffering and pausing live playback could be handled entirely within the Xbox, but how could I watch one show while recording another? That’s a pretty common use case for DVRs; I suspect people wouldn’t want to be without it, no matter how slick the Xbox One’s interface.
It could be that Microsoft have a way around that, although as is frustratingly often the case details are scant right now. It’s just about possible that it could try to integrate (perhaps with only grudging support from cable TV firms) support for all the most popular DVRs all around the world, although that feels like a rather Herculean task. Or perhaps it’s gambling that people don’t care about DVRs as much as I think they do. Time will tell.
For now, though, I certainly think as a tech watcher that the Xbox One is a fascinating and bold move to place Microsoft at the centre of the living room — although as a consumer and a gamer, I find myself drawn to Sony’s approach.
Update: Two weeks after I wrote this post, this picture emerged of Microsoft’s banners at E3: