Opinion// Xbox One: Microsoft and the Cable Guy

Posted 23 May 2013 15:42 by
TV, as we’ve known it for decades, has become an antiquated medium. Anyone who’s knowledgeable in tech will agree that consumers are changing their viewing habits - away from live cable and satellite television, towards mobile devices and online services.

But with the Xbox One, Microsoft suggested that it didn’t want to move media consumption forward, but rather attempt to reinvent the living rooms of the 1990s.

It relied heavily on live TV during its Xbox Reveal event on Tuesday, in an age where our generation of consumers have largely stopped caring about it. To call it a ‘Dad’s Console’ on the basis of this initial reveal is not entirely unfair. If you’re a dad and was born in the 1960s, of course.

The word ‘television’ was used more than any other during the presentation. Microsoft executives spent the first ten minutes of the reveal demonstrating ways in which you can interact with your cable box. Even when talking strictly about games, speakers were constantly referencing and comparing the TV experience.

Now, at this point it’s important to note that the Xbox One isn’t obviously all about TV. Microsoft want to emphasise a console’s multifunctionality. And so it should. Multifuntionality in a games console is good. It was never bad. PS3s and Xbox 360s can run Netflix. PS2s could play DVDs. Convergence is king, but it should not overshadow a device’s core concept.

iPhones can play games, browse the internet and play music. But first and foremost, it makes phone calls. This isn’t lost on the vast number of iPhone owners out there. Apple was consistent in its marketing focus and messaging to ensure it was a phone that doubled as a computer. This is where Microsoft fell down - while all of its gratuitous last-millennium live TV features are a nice addition, it failed to assure the audience that the Xbox One is first and foremost a games console.

Maybe Microsoft isn’t targeting just gamers anymore. That’s fine. But then nobody should be surprised if gamers are disappointed. The Xbox and Xbox 360 were a games consoles. If impression that can be gleaned from Tuesday’s event is that the Xbox One is, by definition, a set top box. Not a product of convergence, but a non-dedicated device. First impressions are everything, and Microsoft blew it.

Ironically, for all of its focus, there’s nothing really revolutionary about the Xbox One’s live TV capabilities. It simply offers a UI overlay on top of your already existing cable box (thus negating Microsoft’s all-in-one marketing spiel). Therefore, the console’s navigation speed is reportedly dependent on the speed of said cable box. And many US cable boxes are sloooooow.

Microsoft is also trying to solve a problem that few people have. Is a large portion of TV users really having trouble pressing a ‘Source’ button on their remote controller to switch inputs? Do people really want to Skype their kids on their TV, interrupting their episode of Corrie? Do Smartglass widgets offer a real benefit over what consumers can do already by simply looking down and using their smartphone apps off-screen?

Add the fact that more and more people are abandoning cable TV (and that outside the US, cable culture isn’t so prominent) and it’s clear that you’ll be spending hundreds of pounds on a console whose primary function (and arguably the focus of the Xbox Reveal event) will not be relevant. And for those with cable, your benefits are voice-activated channel switching and adverts based on data collected by Kinect. Viva la revolution!

Of course, the Xbox Entertainment Hub trojan horse plays games too. We’ve yet to see Microsoft’s gaming strategy in full - real examples of the kind of experiences it can offer, how the new Kinect will improve gameplay, and the ways in which Xbox Live have been enhanced. And what about Illumiroom? There’s plenty to potentially get excited about, but Microsoft would rather we didn’t.

These will instead be revealed at E3, no doubt, and is Microsoft’s chance to keep the machine relevant in the eyes of its core consumers. Because once the consumer market realises that the Xbox One is nothing more than a glorified Google TV (and look how that turned out), Microsoft is going to really need the goodwill of its core consumers.

Ultimately, don’t rule out the Xbox One just yet, until all the facts are clear. It could end up being a great gaming machine. But that doesn’t mean we can’t rightly criticise Microsoft’s event on Tuesday for being off-message. Rather than proudly unveil a games console that could also be the best TV companion in the world, it showed the world a set top box that seemed to have games as merely an afterthought.

That is understandably cause for concern - especially if the set top box features it teases actually end up being quite underwhelming in practice. Microsoft needs to make clear its gaming plans, and fast, so it’s a good thing E3’s right around the corner.

The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and does not reflect those of SPOnG.com except when it does.

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