I haven't had pay TV since I moved, and my Xbox 360 had a lot to do with that. Over the past few years, my Xbox 360 has become a bit of a "Netflix Box", and more often than not I'm using it to stream episodes of Twin Peaks and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Yesterday, I met with Microsoft's Terry Farrell, who is product manager on a host of coming additions to the Xbox dashboard, and I got the distinct impression that the Xbox is about to become much more of a centralised media hub -- it could soon finally become the cable-streaming, all-encompassing entertainment device that Microsoft has attempting to create for almost the past decade.
Ferrell described the coming dashboard update, which is set to arrive sometime around the Christmas holidays, as the most dramatic overhaul since the New Xbox Experience that launched in 2008. It will include total Kinect integration and a box-based redesign that is very in line with the operating system on the Windows Phone, as well as what we know of the coming Windows 8 operating system.
The dashboard will be broken into familiar categories -- Video, Games, Music, Apps, Settings -- with a few notable additions. The "Social" tab will allow access to all of the Xbox's social media functionality. While I've yet to feel a burning desire to use Facebook from my Xbox, the Xbox team is pushing to integrate social media into games in new ways. Xbox users will be able to set "Beacons" for various games, which will be posted across Xbox Live and other social media, letting your friends know, for example, "I want to play Halo: Reach tonight." Also, achievements will be sharable right through a game's list of achievements. If you want to let your friends know about a particularly awesome achievement, you can post it to Facebook straight from the dashboard.
In the future, Ferrell said, they'll be working social functions into the achievement system as games are being developed; there will be an option to share achievements automatically with friends. And he went to great lengths to assure me that these functions were entirely optional -- your Xbox will not turn into a Facebook-spamming machine unless you want it to.
Ferrell also demonstrated the slick Kinect integration, which worked quite well for the most part. By giving spoken instructions (e.g. "Xbox: Games."), he could quickly move around the dashboard, and it was really easy to go back and forth between the controller and the Kinect. He had to repeat himself a few times when navigating, but given that the code was still pre-alpha, those small kinks could very well be worked out.
In a nice touch, the new Xbox dashboard will use the Bing search engine as an all-encompassing search. Doing a search for, say, "Batman" will turn up every game, movie, show, and app available across the entire system. From that results screen, users can drill down to more specific searches, though the extent of search customisation has yet to be determined. Searching for a given product on Xbox Live is currently quite a headache for me, and the Bing functionality really looks like a big step in the right direction. Now, if only we could stop calling it "Bing"… I guess you can't have everything.
I was very interested to talk to Ferrell about television programming, which is his main area of focus. Since adding ESPN functionality to Xbox Live, it has seemed like Microsoft is moving towards providing users with live television streams over their Xboxes, the "holy grail" of finally rendering set-top cable boxes obsolete. By adding the ability to watch alongside your Xbox friends around the world, Microsoft goes one step further, giving an included layer of social connectivity that we've never had before with TV. Personally speaking, I didn't think that Netflix's "party watch" feature would be nearly as much fun as it is, but after watching a few movies with my friends from around the country, I'm sold -- it's a great deal of fun, and would be even better with a live sporting event.
But ESPN is one channel -- the end goal of all of this, in theory, would be to provide comprehensive cable coverage, including premium channels, all streaming through your Xbox for a set monthly fee. In fact, Microsoft is already doing this in several places overseas -- in England, they offer British Sky Broadcasting programming straight through the box, a service which Ferrell described as the British equivalent of Comcast.
He said that they are currently in talks with every possible cable provider in North America, and though he wouldn't name names (specifically Comcast), he said, "The assumptions of the people you think we're talking to are the people we're talking to."
Ferrell was aware that users could get at this content in other ways -- I still use my PC to play a lot of movies and TV shows, and my PS3 also has Hulu Plus and Netflix. But to his eye, the Xbox experience, dashboard, Kinect and social functionality add a layer of "special sauce" to all of the media that makes it the superior experience.
The Xbox dashboard update will be coming out in the Holiday, with a rolling series of content additions set to come after the initial launch. YouTube and UFC will be both be added to the dash immediately on launch, but nothing else has been announced -- we'll hear more about possible full-service cable packages soon.
Price, content, and functionality remain a question-mark. Beyond the ESPN app, I haven't seen any of this streaming-TV stuff in action, so the idea of streaming cable into my Xbox is all still speculative. Furthermore, pay TV companies are pretty entrenched in the ways that they do business, and any talks with a digital competitor, even one with Microsoft's strength and resources, could well end up stalling out or leading to a crippled compromise that offers less than what regular pay TV customers receive.
But with broader system-wide functionality and the company in talks with the largest cable providers to offer comprehensive plans, Microsoft's dream of a fully fledged, all-encompassing entertainment box looks closer to fruition than ever. Xbox owners might finally be able to ditch their cable boxes for good.