Microsoft Updates Xbox To Cement Hold On Living Room

Microsoft’s new Smartglass technology, due Friday, combined with a new update to the Xbox, puts the company clearly in the driver’s seat to control the evolution of the living room.

Microsoft said Tuesday that its Smartglass technology, which makes tablets and phones a “second screen” to complement the Xbox game console, will be available on Friday, the same day the company plans to release Windows 8. At the same time, a scheduled Xbox update adds Windows Explorer to the TV screen - along with a key addition: recommended content.

“We are bringing the Web to the TV like never before with Internet Explorer, launching a brand new music service, and making it even easier to find the entertainment you love using Kinect and Bing voice search,” said Yusuf Mehdi, chief marketing officer for Microsoft's Interactive Entertainment Division, in a blog post. “This release is the next step in our journey to transform Xbox 360 from a games console to an all-in-one entertainment system.”

According to Nielsen’s first-quarter “Cross-Platform Report,” (PDF), Americans spend 1 hour 38

minutes per week on gaming devices. But consoles with the power to stream video (now, virtually all of them), the average time spent is 2 hours and 48 minutes a week. The conclusion? Game consoles aren’t just a console, they’re a set-top box, a front-end gateway to entertainment content that the traditional cable or satellite box just doesn’t provide.

The same report also notes that DVR viewing continues to increase. With the exception of live sports, viewers are caring less about watching live TV as it happens, instead time-shifting it to when it’s most convenient. That, in turn, blurs the line between the recorded shows available on Netflix, Hulu and other sources of content and the linear streams of content presented on network and cable TV that we can “dip into” with our DVRs.

Recommending What To Watch

One of the most important additions to the Xbox update, then, is the release of recommendations. “Recommendations will allow you to discover new movies, TV shows and games, generated based on a number of variables including the content you previously viewed, what your friends are consuming and what is most relevant and popular with our Xbox community,” said Larry Hyrb, Microsoft’s Xbox community spokesman, in a related blog post. “You can now rate content yourself and also see Rotten Tomatoes ratings.”

According to ABI Research, the number of videos and TV shows available to watch numbers somewhere north of 100,000, although the total varies widely according to how they’re defined. (Amazon and Google, for example, are suspected to equate a single episode of a TV show as equivalent to a movie, putting South Park on the scale of Captain America.) However you count, though, there’s an overwhelming amount of content out there, and recommendations help narrow it down based on your preferences and what your friends like.

There are essentially three methods of rating content:

  1. Active or manual ratings, such as what Netflix and Google TV use, allow users to rate The Blues Brothers, for example. The algorithm then determines that, based on your preference for popular, critically acclaimed movies starring Dan Ackroyd, that you might like Ghostbusters(http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0087332/).
  2. Social recommendations use “likes” and references to promote content.
  3. Passive recommendations aren’t based on what you say you want to watch, but what you actually do watch.

The latter two are Microsoft’s preferred methods.

“Solving the [recommendation] problem for users means solving how users relate to content,” Sam Rosen, an analyst for ABI Research, said in an interview. “How they decide what they want to watch, when they want to watch, and giving them the flexibility to subscribe to certain feeds, to browse based on certain interests, and personalize their recommendations based on who they’re sitting with.”

“I think that passive and social [recommendations] are going to catch on more than manual,” Rosen added. “I think that rating for the purpose of rating has worked well for Netflix, based on their timing of when they entered the Web, and their ability to build a certain loyal base. I think as people move away from their PC on their desk, where they’re making the decision about what to put in their queue, as they move to more on-demand rating, I would guess - and I haven’t looked at the question - I would guess that the number of people rating Netflix content is going down over time.”

Watching The Web On TV

Bringing the best of the Web to the set-top box, of course, was the mission statement of Google TV, which launched two years ago. But content providers, leery of losing ad revenue, blocked the nascent platform. Today, Google TV isn’t much more than a front end to services like Netflix and YouTube, with some third-party apps.

However, Google TV also offers one capability that other platforms have lacked: the Web. Unfortunately, that meant typing in a search query. With the updated Xbox and Kinect, Xbox users can now verbally ask a query, rather than have to use an awkward on-screen keyboard. Voice also works with the recommendation engine as well.

The Xbox update also includes new features like “pinning” favorites to the Start menu, the newly released Xbox Video, and recently watched content. Improvements to Bing will let users say, “Xbox, Bing, action” and receive results for action movies from across Xbox.

SmartGlass: Last, And Least Interesting

In some ways, SmartGlass might be the least interesting update to the Xbox. Yes, it will give the Xbox a “second screen,” another way for a user to interact with content on the main display (program notes and minutiae from HBO’s Game of Thrones, for example) and additional control options like pinch and zoom. SmartGlass will be used by games, including Dance Central 3, Forza Horizon, Halo Waypoint and Home Run Stars, among others; entertainment apps such as HBO GO, MSN, and NBC News; plus sports apps like ESPN and the UFC.

However, it requires users to own a tablet or phone. Not surprisingly, SmartGlass will be first available with Surface and with Windows Phone 8; additional platforms are coming soon, according to Engadget. That approach hasn't placated existing Windows Phone 7.5 users, who will be left out in the cold at launch.

Microsoft has set itself up to traverse the continuum of tablet, phone and PC. But it hasn’t forgotten about the biggest screen in the house, which in some ways is still the most important of all.