The race to a "smart" television is over. Xbox won
Microsoft's vision for television's future looks a lot like the future of personal computers. The company today revealed the Xbox One, a combination Windows device, videogame console, and set-top box meant to inject Xbox -- and Microsoft -- into everything you might use a television for, whether it's watching a football game, video-conferencing with family, playing games, or browsing the Web.
Xbox One effectively creates what might be called the first genuinely "smart" television. You'll be able to talk to Xbox One by saying "Xbox" and issuing a command; the device is capable of reacting to your gestures and movements, thanks to the built-in Kinect sensor; and you can control it with a smartphone or tablet via the integrated SmartGlass service. Using a television set or videogame console used to involve a game of let's-find-the-remote and a series of button presses; now it will be more like talking to a personal assistant who reacts to every word and motion.
That should sound familiar. Google has been trying to do the same with its Voice Search and Google Now services, which react when you say "Okay, Glass," or "Okay, Google," and Apple is doing something similar with its virtual assistant, Siri. Leap Motion recently raised $30 million to bring its gesture-based technology to desktop computers and, eventually, mobile devices. A number of startups are attempting to bring such controls to televisions, and both Google and Apple are either working on or rumored to be working on their own living room products.
Microsoft has simply taken all of those features and brought them to the Xbox, turning the videogame console into an harbinger for the future of its -- and maybe, eventually, the rest of the industry's -- products. There's a reason why Microsoft asked the tech press to schlep it up to Seattle today instead of announcing the Xbox One during the E3 videogame conference: The Xbox One isn't about videogames. Sure, it can still play them, and Microsoft has improved the gaming experience alongside the new entertainment and computing features, but this is the first Xbox built specifically to be something more than a videogame console.
Today's announcement highlighted the Xbox One's new Windows-like interface, Skype's arrival on the device, the Xbox One's ability to control your television and insert itself between you and your cable box, and a partnership with the NFL before showcasing any videogame-related features. The Xbox 360 (the current version of the console) became an all-in-one entertainment device almost by accident; its primary function was to play videogames, but it also allowed you to watch Netflix, listen to music, or perform other entertainment-focused functions as a side-show. Xbox One is meant to be an all-in-one (no pun intended) device from the start.
It took decades for computers to leave our living rooms and offices and become part of our everyday -- and every minute -- lives. Now we have computers in our pockets, on our wrists, in our cars, and in front of our faces. The future will see even more devices fall into the "computer" category, whether that involves building a "smart" refrigerator, an assortment of Internet-connected devices or, as Microsoft and others are trying to do right now, television sets. It's no longer enough for a company to build smartphones or tablets. We're living in the Internet of everything, and it's about time TVs were included in that category.
The Xbox brand puts Microsoft in a prime position to realize that connected future. With more than 76 million Xbox 360 units sold, chances are good that you or someone you know owns an Xbox. Or perhaps you've heard of the "Halo" franchise, of which over 50 million games have been sold. Microsoft has thrown its weight behind the Xbox brand, using it to market its music and video services and, justifiably, anything even remotely related to gaming.
Maybe it's best to think of the Xbox as the App Store for entertainment and, well, actual software. Microsoft has the opportunity to connect many disparate services -- Amazon Prime Instant Video, Netflix, Hulu Plus, its own Xbox Video service, and more -- and collect them all under one dominant platform, much in the same way that Apple corralled software into its own App Store or videos, music, and books into the iTunes store. The Xbox One is the only device to corral all of those services, videogames, the Web, Skype, and your existing cable service into one place. And, until the Apple TV, Roku set-top boxes, or similar products are able to play blockbuster videogames, the Xbox One will remain the king of the living room.
The Xbox One is a videogame console in name only -- it has less to do with gaming than it does with general computing. But it owes a lot to previous consoles, which genuinely were meant mostly for videogames, because without them Microsoft would be in the same position as Apple, Google, and every other company scrambling to make it into the living room.
Xbox may have started out as a gaming console, but it has become so much more.