Xbox One wants to transform television – but why?
So now we know: the evolution will be televised. As had been heavily trailed, Microsoft’s Xbox One reveal in Redmond yesterday focused sharply on the importance of television, sports, and other forms of mainstream entertainment. The platform holder wants living room supremacy more than ever before, and hopes that Xbox One can become the definitive all-in-one box that various lumpen media centres haven’t.
As a man who already watches a thrombosis-inducing amount of television, I’m not convinced. The nagging question I had as Yusuf Mehdi swiped, grabbed and panned his way around the UI was: what problem does this actually solve? During his segment there was a lovely moment of Orwellian doublespeak when he gleefully confirmed that switching channels is: “as fast as using your TV remote”. Non-problem solved.
“It sounds simple and obvious, and it should be,” lamented Medhi, “but today it isn’t, because of the need to change inputs to get to live TV”. And so it continued. Problems were unconvincingly conjured and then fixed to the audience’s muted delight. When Mehdi asked what the biggest problem facing TV watchers was, I genuinely had no idea.
The answer was, apparently, knowing what to watch. Microsoft’s solution was the Xbox One Guide, an admittedly swish-looking EPG, which coupled with ‘trending’ and ‘favourites’ areas, Microsoft hopes can… actually, I don’t know what’s it’s for. Is it for digital ingénues to discover that quite a lot of people like Game Of Thrones? For me to remind myself that I quite like Game Of Thrones?
Perhaps there’s some logic to it, if the Xbox One’s functionality helps me unearth a show like Borgen, or a movie like Primer, or a band that’s equally worthy and intellectual – let’s say, The Knife – but wouldn’t I have already discovered these by dint of having friends with such wonderful taste, who I speak to on social media and, begrudgingly, in real life? Conversely, won’t the global trending area inevitably be full of the most populist mulch all day, every day? (Note: I say that as a fan of populist mulch, I just don’t need much help discovering it.) Or, to put it another way, there’s every chance Call Of Duty: Ghosts will be trending from launch until the eventual release of Call Of Duty: Djinns.
Does that sound churlish? It’s not meant to. I’ve little doubt Xbox One’s media handling capabilities will be slicker than anything we’re used to currently on Smart TVs or set-top boxes. As PCGamesN editor Tim Edwards noted on Twitter: people’s reactions to this exact feature set might have been very different if they had been announced as part of an Apple TV announcement. Equally though, Microsoft still has questions to answer in this space. Has the case really been convincingly made that the mainstream wants to talk to its television like Deckard interrogating that image of the bathroom in Bladerunner? I know I don’t, and amusingly reports surfaced after the show that Mehdi’s use of “Xbox!” commands during the broadcast had triggered the voice recognition of Kinects at home and even shut some streams entirely.
We can write that off as gremlins which will be eliminated, once we’re all using the retooled version of Kinect which recognises his master’s voice more accurately. Less easy to ignore is Microsoft’s track record when it comes to rolling out partner services. The warning from history is that it’s been the US market first, and they’ll get to the rest eventually. And so it already seems with Xbox One. At present all we know is that cable or satellite box compatibility will be a launch feature in the US, and brought to other regions at a later date. Which seems strangely non-committal given that the functionality formed almost the entire first half of the hour-long presentation.
As for the ‘snap’ app stuff, it’s even less clear what will be available from launch and in which regions. So, as cool as the NFL fantasy league pop-up looked, it’d surely take an eye-watering amount of effort to create localised versions for the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and so on. For information already plentifully available on my iPad. Which isn’t to say it won’t happen, but is to recognise the complexity of the task Microsoft is setting itself.
There’s a reason those Smart TVs and media centres have failed to capture the imagination, and it’s because they’ve been clunky and lacked content. Microsoft has the muscle and now entertainment experience to fix both of those issues, but it will need to deliver a hardware/software solution that isn’t just easy to use, but also genuinely useful.
Speaking at the start of the presentation, Don Mattrick spoke of how the living room is “too fragmented, too slow” and of “harmonising your experiences”. Well, maybe. But ask yourself whether doing a picture-in-picture Internet search for information on the new Star Trek movie, while watching the old Star Trek movie, is inherently more satisfying than carrying out the same task on your phone or tablet? The feature isn’t bad, but how is it compelling? Or less intrusive?
Where Mattrick is unquestionably correct is with the assertion that Xbox One needs to be: “simple, instant and complete.” Rather than look to Apple, perhaps a better example is offered by Sonos. Being able to stream music from various sources wasn’t something I felt like I needed until I tried it – now I wouldn’t be without it. The simplicity of the UI, and the ease with which the Sonos speakers take content from iTunes, Last.fm, iPlayer, TuneIn radio and others, plus the way they use iOS devices as their controllers, best represents how software and hardware can work in tandem to deliver a user experience that’s tangibly better than what went before.
Of course, that’s not quite as simple a message to deliver as ‘look at these new graphics’ – but it’s a case Microsoft is going to need keep making between now and launch.