Microsoft's Xbox One, unveiled Tuesday at a special event in Redmond, looks to blur the line between gaming and other forms of entertainment like watching TV. Watching Microsoft demonstrate the capabilities of the new system gave me a sense of déjà vu, because a lot of what Microsoft showed are features that pundits and bloggers would love to see from the heretofore mythical Apple television.
I won't recap for you all the features and technologies available in the new system - for that I'll defer to our friends at Windows Phone Central. But the overarching message Microsoft offered was that the Xbox One is the centerpiece of the new home entertainment system. More than a game console, Xbox One serves as the nexus for television viewing, music and other forms of entertainment, and Microsoft is even striking out into original content development with shows created for Xbox Live. Perhaps predictably, they're developing a live action series around Halo.
Microsoft execs veered into Minority Report territory by controlling the Xbox One using hand gestures and voice control. (The Xbox 360 with Kinect can do that now, but on a more limited basis.) Microsoft promises that the Kinect, to be included with Xbox One, is now high resolution enough to recognize your face and measure your heartbeat. Okay, now that I write that out, it sounds a bit creepy. But that's the direction we're moving.
The center of home entertainment?
Some people scratched their heads at the name. Xbox One? But we were already at 360! But it makes sense when you listen to Microsoft's pitch as the Xbox One as the center of home entertainment.
Even the design of the Xbox One speaks to Microsoft's desire to broaden its appeal in the living room beyond mere gaming. The new box looks like a home entertainment appliance. Its squared off, simple lines and black and white trim guarantee the Xbox One will blend in well with a stereo receiver and flat screen TV, rather than drawing attention to itself like a traditional game console.
Microsoft articulated a pretty comprehensive media strategy - original and third party game development, original entertainment content using Xbox Live as the broadcast medium, and integration with the rest of your home entertainment center to simplify the experience.
And if you sift through most of the words written about Apple and its still-imaginary television, you'll find that many of those writers are hoping that Apple's working on the same track. I've read wild-eyed prognostications suggesting that Apple's foray into television would yield us devices that we'd talk with and gesture at; that Apple would be the savior to straighten out the mess of remotes and TV, DVR and cable box interfaces we're currently faced with.
Compared with where we're at today, it's easy to understand the appeal of a single system that unifies our home entertainment experience. It's a problem that's been really difficult to tackle and done with only limited degrees of success. Logitech's Harmony remote was one such attempt, but it remains squarely a niche product. Wealthy homeowners can invest more money than a mid-range sedan in an automated home entertainment system, but that's a solution that's squarely aimed at one percenters.
A changing landscape
It's been eight years since the last Xbox system came out, and the landscapes of both home entertainment and gaming have changed dramatically - when the Xbox 360 debuted, the iPhone was still two years away from being introduced. Game consoles garned huge interactive entertainment dollars.
Console games remain a multibillion dollar industry, but mobile technology and "casual gaming" have made a huge dent in a business that was once considered recession-proof and contraction-proof. What's more, consumers' use of game consoles has changed. In my house, for example, my kids are as likely to watch a Netflix movie streamed on their game console as they are to play a game. And the games they do play are increasingly downloaded from Xbox Live or the PlayStation Store, not bought at a retailer and inserted as a disc.
The Xbox One will remain, at its core, a game console, but it makes sense that Microsoft wants to expand the Xbox One's role as an all-around entertainment center. One that has value to members of the household that simply aren't interested in gaming.
Room for everyone
Maybe Apple is working on some of the same problems Microsoft hopes to tackle with the Xbox One, maybe it isn't. Of one thing I'm certain: the chance is negligible that Apple will rework the Apple TV as a gaming platform, either through installable apps or lower-latency connections to iOS devices: AirPlay is fine for spectating games, but absolutely useless if you want to play game on your iOS device but use the TV as your only display. And if you think it's as easy as just making iOS apps available for the Apple TV, you're not thinking through the actual interface - multitouch doesn't work
Obviously today's Apple TV is not the answer that pundits are looking for. All I know for sure is that until Apple actually has a product to announce, it's all rumor. And that pundits and bloggers have gotten enormous mileage out of a single comment that Tim Cook made in an interview last year when he called television an area of "intense interest" for Apple.
For now, though, Microsoft is positioning the Xbox One as the centerpiece of the home entertainment system. And at least as it's envisioned today, the Apple TV is little more than a sideshow. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Home entertainment is big business, and there's plenty of room for different companies with different ideas. Apple's done quite nicely for itself up to now without dominating the entire living room.