Microsoft will push out an update to Xbox consoles Tuesday, designed to get consumers to turn on the device every time they flip on their televisions, not just when they want to play games.
Though most gamers will notice a dramatically different interface, and some will take advantage of more advanced voice-recognition controls, the real significance of the update is how boldly the software giant is putting itself at the core of the TV entertainment experience. Microsoft is partnering with 40 content providers from around the globe to significantly increase the amount of live and on-demand content available on Xbox.
Over the next month, Microsoft will add content in the United States to the Xbox from Verizon's Fios, TV, ESPN, and the Syfy channel among others. Next year, HBO Go and Comcast's Xfinity on Demand will come to U.S. customers. Many of the apps from partners are only available to customers who purchase an Xbox Live Gold Membership.
Microsoft is also adding new programming to the Xbox experience abroad. Canadian customers will get content from Rogers Media, Maple Leaf Sports, and TMZ, among others. And new programming will roll out in Europe, Australia and Asia.
Xbox Live update (December 2011)
The newest iteration of Xbox software, which Microsoft first unveiled at E3 this spring, does away with the interface in which users scrolled up and down to hubs such as Video Marketplace or My Xbox. After they got to a hub, users could then dive deeper into each topic by toggling to the right to the specific content they wanted.
Microsoft has replaced that look with the so-called Metro interface that it first introduced with Windows Phone 7. It's also designing the Metro interface into Windows 8, expected to launch at the end of next year. With Xbox, the Metro look starts with the content hubs--such as video, games, and social--displayed horizontally across the top of the screen. Selecting a hub shows the rectangular tile Metro-look. Each tile displays content, such as the latest games played or the hottest movies available on demand.
"The menu takes a back seat and the content comes front and center," said Mike Suraci, Director of Product Management in Xbox.
Microsoft has also baked in deeper voice control of the console for consumers using its Kinect sensor. The Kinect is better known as motion-controller that gives gamers the ability to use gestures to play games. But Kinect also has a microphone array in it. When Kinect debuted last year, gamers could use their voice for some limited voice-controlled navigation.
The new iteration goes far deeper. Now users can jump from hub to hub with their voice and select games, movies, and other programming just by uttering the title. It's not entirely intuitive, though. If a user wants to catch an episode of, say, "Breaking Bad," they first need to go to the video hub to request the show. They can't simply say "Breaking Bad" from the home screen.
Xbox also lets users search for content using Bing with their voice. They need to call out words in the correct sequence to make it work. To watch an episode of "30 Rock," for example, users can say, "Xbox. Bing. 30 Rock," and the console will display all of the available programming with "30 Rock" in the title. That includes the TV show as well as, for example, the album, "Greatest Hits: 30 Years of Rock" by George Thorogood & The Destroyers.
The results from those Bing queries also display content from Microsoft's partners. The idea is to do away with the endless searches for content among the various silos of services. So searching for "Super 8," for example, will give customers the opportunity to rent the movie from Vudu, which is Wal-Mart's video-on-demand service, and Netflix, as well from Microsoft's Zune marketplace. And Comcast subscribers will be able to find all of its video-on-demand titles from their Xbox, when its application debuts early next year.
The move could pull customers away from Comcast's set-top box interface, essentially handing over control of that experience to Microsoft. But Marcien Jenckes, senior vice president and general manager of video services at Comcast, said the company needs to be make sure its offerings are available broadly.
"We should be everywhere that the consumer is," Jenckes said.
Verizon has taken a different approach with Xbox. It's putting 26 channels of live television--including Comedy Central, HBO, and Nickelodeon--on Xbox through its Fios TV application. With only 26 channels, there are plenty of holes, including all the broadcast networks as well as popular channels such as Discovery and ESPN (though ESPNews will be available). So if users want to, say, flip during a The Daily Show commercial break on a Monday night to check in on the score of Monday Night Football, they're out of luck with that application.
That's largely a function of obtaining the rights from the various networks, a time consuming endeavor, said Verizon director of product management Joe Ambeault. But the company is working toward that goal.
"This is just our Day 1," Ambeault said.
Ultimately, he sees a future where there won't be a need for consumers to own set-top boxes. Eventually, consumers will get all of their connect from providers such as Verizon through Xbox consoles, Blu-ray players, and digital media gadgets such as Roku and Boxee devices.
That's been Microsoft's long-term vision for Xbox from the day it dreamed up the console more than a decade ago. The company has always wanted a beachhead in living rooms around the world. The latest iteration of the Xbox interface isn't perfect. But it moves the company one step closer.