XBOX ONE: Can Microsoft Own the Living Room?

On May 21, Microsoft revealed the next generation of their gaming-cum-entertainment console, Xbox. Dubbed XBOX ONE, officials made it a point to talk up the non-gaming aspects of the new console as much as, if not more than, the gaming aspects. Given that the reveal event was limited to an hour, and that this is a console that has not been updated for years, there were many questions raised than answers provided.

Some of the key questions, at least among the tech media revolve around the gaming aspects of the console, and whether it or the upcoming console from Sony, the Playstation 4 (PS4) would be the better device for gamers. The other aspect that has been questioned a lot is the live TV feature revealed by Microsoft. Eyebrows were raised when everyone realized that the live TV feature would be provided via HDMI input and IR blaster as opposed to TV tuners or cable cards.

This is typical of tech media nowadays. For whatever reason, they make anything that Microsoft does seem silly. Here’s my take on what the Xbox One represents for Microsoft and how some of the things that are in the console may make sense.

First, this was the first of many events where the Xbox team will talk about the various aspects of the console. Naturally, since there is so much information to disseminate, it would be too much to do all at once and in a reasonable amount of time. Remember how the Sony event went on for hours because they went into too much detail at a “launch” event? I think, Microsoft learned the lesson and kept it short and left it simply as a reveal event without going into too much (or any) detail with regard to the developer story, the policy for used games, etc. There are at least two known events in June where they will get a chance to talk about the Xbox One as well as Xbox 360: the E3 expo in early June, and the Microsoft developer conference, BUILD, in late June. The timing of the reveal event absolutely makes sense given that they can follow up on the story within weeks of the reveal.

As for gaming aspects, Microsoft did talk about the specs of the console which are a significant upgrade over the Xbox 360. They also talked about how the three OSes in the console work in a way to make it possible to instantly switch between apps and games without having to wait for the game to reload. Some have rightly pointed out that by pure specs, the Xbox One is inferior to the PS4. However, as we know, there is no point in having a higher spec gadget where the software or content cannot or does not take advantage of the higher spec. For example, the iPad with Retina Display had an issue when it shipped, where many of the popular apps were not Retina-ready and looked worse than they looked on the non-Retina iPads. So, we will have to wait and see how much better the graphics look on the PS4 before concluding that it is “better” than the Xbox One.

As for the games themselves, they showed some of the exclusives that are coming to Xbox One from large development shops like EA. Naturally, E3 is the more appropriate venue to talk more about the games that will be coming to the console when it launches, both from large shops as well as indie developers. Also, BUILD is the best venue to discuss the developer story, especially how Xbox plans to accommodate indie developers especially if the “guts” of the console are based on Windows 8. Can a developer, for example, build an app or a game for Windows 8 tablet and with minor modifications (like maybe Kinect support), publish it to the “Xbox Store”? I am of course making the assumption that there will be an Xbox Store, which has not been confirmed by Microsoft but again, between E3 and BUILD we should know for sure.

Now, regarding live TV and wasted resources (hardware and software) to support it via a combination of HDMI passthrough and IR blaster. The argument made is that these methods are backward and it was tried by Google TV and did not succeed at all. Let me just say that Google TV, among many other flaws, did not support voice like Xbox One is supposed to support. The demo at the reveal event showed how you could simply talk to the Xbox and switch from playing a game to watching a channel or a show just by voice. Google TV had a clunky remote that was really hard to use and perhaps the failure of Google TV was not the IR blaster as maybe the user experience itself.

Coming to the choice they made by not including TV tuners or cable cards, the same pundits complaining about these are also claiming that more and more entertainment is viewed without cable. There is evidence that at least in the US, many households are “cutting the cord” and living without cable. These households have not stopped watching TV, they just use services like Netflix, hulu, etc. to consume their content. If that is the case, and knowing that the Xbox console is built for at least a 7-10 years lifecycle, what is the point in supporting a dying technology? Why should the Xbox have the incremental cost bundled into it now, knowing that in maybe 3 years most of the content won’t be consumed via the cable box? The Xbox One has done the right thing by providing the equivalent of a USB dongle for floppy drives when floppy drives were eliminated from laptops. The HDMI-in and IR blaster will help transition away from the cable box. Even though they have to plan for the future, they still have to support the present and that’s what these ports allow them to do. The only issue I see so far, and we don’t know everything about it in detail yet, is the lack of a DVR in the console itself. That too could be a non-issue if the voice commands could bring up the DVR content from the cable box too.

The Xbox 360 has sold 76 million consoles in its lifetime so far, but I am sure Microsoft wants that to expand dramatically. Why wouldn’t they expect to have one in each household? In order to appeal to “non-gaming households”, Microsoft will have to make the console appealing to the casual gamers and non-gamers via their entertainment story as well as the ecosystem story. There is, after all, a potential to see apps written for Windows Phone that may work on Windows 8 and Xbox One (with code modifications to suit each device appropriately, of course). Pure gaming console market is surely on the decline, so targeting just the gamers by simply making the most powerful console on the market would be a waste of R&D resources. Instead, by making it reasonably competitive with the PS4 for gaming, and dramatically improving the other experiences like live TV, snapping two apps, Skype video conferencing in HD, completely overhauled Kinect with wide-angle 1080P camera that can see in the dark, exclusive partnership with the NFL, etc., Microsoft has a shot at becoming a permanent fixture in the living room.

Personally speaking, I am at best a casual gamer. I liked what I have seen so far. I do want to know how they are going to fit the developer pieces together and what are the chances of seeing a spurt in apps as well as the integration within the Windows ecosystem. By the end of June, I will know enough to decide if I am going to buy the console right away or not.

Are you excited about Xbox One? Sound off in the comments!

#XboxReveal: Next Xbox Coming on May 21

As was rumored, Microsoft announced an event on their campus scheduled for May 21, where they promise to talk about the next generation of the Xbox. Larry Hyrb, more popularly known as Xbox LIVE’s Major Nelson, announced the event on his blog.

#XboxReveal

Timing-wise, it works out very well for Microsoft. They can reveal the console and its capabilities along with the story of how it ties into the rest of the Microsoft ecosystem, especially around Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 in May. This reveal is then followed up 19 days later by the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) where Microsoft traditionally has had a major presence and a big keynote. This is where they show off the games that would accompany the launch, which is widely expected to by this Holiday season.

Finally, at the end of June comes //build, Microsoft’s developer conference where they could tell a deeper story to the rest of the developers (besides the launch partners, which are expected to be big game developer houses) and put the developer pieces together for not just game developers but perhaps all developers. If the rumors are true and the next Xbox is really “Windows 8 Inside”, there could be a lot of possibilities for all kinds of applications to be made available on the large screen. Combined with the power of the next version of Kinect, developers would have a great way to take their code from a Windows Phone 8 app or a Windows 8 app and tweak it for use on a large screen with gestures, voice and indirect touch via SmartGlass.

As for the #XboxReveal event itself, some of the media has been invited to the Xbox campus, but Microsoft is also live streaming the event on xbox.com, on Xbox LIVE on the console itself and on SpikeTV in the US and Canada. The event is on Tuesday, May 21st at 1pmET/10amPT/1700GMT.

As for the rumors, there have been a ton of them already about the specs of the console and the architecture. Much like Sony’s PS4, the Xbox is believed to be running on AMD architecture. Additionally, a more precise version of Kinect is expected to be on-board. There were initially rumors of an entertainment-only version of the console, to align with Apple TV, Roku and others, but recent updates suggest that it may have been postponed for now.

Among the unknowns of course are what the console looks like (there have been no leaks of the renders), the pricing and of course whether the current Xbox 360 would be kept in the market and if so, at what price.

I am excited about this, but not so much for the gaming on next generation hardware. I am more interested in the non-gaming parts of the next Xbox. How about you?

Microsoft’s New ‘holodeck’ Turns Your Room into a Giant Screen

Microsoft shows off its “Holodeck” system to recreate your room into a more intense cinematic experience. Microsoft has refused to revel details on how this works until it is presented in Paris at the CHI conference on human-computer interaction this April.

Imagine your game spilling off from your screen onto your entire room wall. That should make things more interesting for sure. It will move gaming to a whole new level. Microsoft has submitted a patent application in the US Patent Office. Patent application ‘Immersive Display Experience‘ was filed by Gritsko Perez on behalf of Microsoft on 2 March 2011.

The idea has been sketched out shows that the foal point of the game will be seen on the screen, but the surrounding area will fill your room walls.

Microsoft has described the Holodeck as,

It augments the area surrounding a television screen with projected visualizations to enhance the traditional living room entertainment experience.

User enjoyment of video games and related media experiences can be increased by making the gaming experience more realistic. Previous attempts to make the experience more realistic have included switching from two-dimensional to three-dimensional animation techniques, increasing the resolution of game graphics, producing improved sound effects, and creating more natural game controllers.

Again, this seems to be a counter to Apple’s iGlasses, except that this is more multi-viewer than single viewer. The peripheral image would be created by a 360-degree projector and would adjust as the gamer moved around in the game, and in the room. Eye-tracking tech would ensure that the scene shifts as the user looks around it. A special built in mechanism would avoid shining light into the user’s eyes.

Perez’s application also suggests that the image could be adjusted to the shape and even color of the room to optimize the experience.

(Source: theregister.co.uk)

Microsoft Minesweeper Arrives on Windows RT

When we first saw Windows RT devices like the Surface with Windows RT in the market, we noticed that Microsoft’s own games like Microsoft Minesweeper, Microsoft Solitaire and Microsoft Mahjong were not available for the ARM-based OS. It was a strange situation because the games, even though classic, are excellent to play on Windows 8, and there is no “third party” to blame. Those games are from Microsoft Studios, available on Windows 8 but not on Windows RT.

However, the first of the three, Microsoft Minesweeper is now available on Windows RT. I took it for a spin and here are some of my observations.

Live tile updates with some bits about highest score:

Microsoft Minesweeper Live Tile
Microsoft Minesweeper Live Tile

 

There are different levels, and also some daily challenges and an adventure mode

 

Microsoft Minesweeper Game Levels
Microsoft Minesweeper Game Levels

Oh, there are some ads too!

 

Microsoft Minesweeper Ad
Microsoft Minesweeper Ad

Daily challenges are mini-games

 

Microsoft Minesweeper Daily Challenges
Microsoft Minesweeper Daily Challenges

 

The more you win, the more Achievement, Medals and Badges you collect

 

Microsoft Minesweeper Rewards
Microsoft Minesweeper Rewards

There are monthly rewards, so you can go back to previous days’ challenges to get more rewards

Microsoft Minesweeper Monthly Challenge Calendar
Microsoft Minesweeper Monthly Challenge Calendar

The game is touch-friendly, but the performance is absolutely horrible. No wonder this game was not released on Windows RT on day one. Clearly, the code needed to be optimized, and it seems it is not there yet. I noticed very long refresh times for example, when I went to see the entire month’s challenge calendar view.

Besides the performance, which I am hoping gets tuned via updates quickly, the game is fun and the daily challenges keep the interest alive in this “classic” game.

It is interesting to note that those daily challenges are “sponsor-supported” and in one case I was even made to watch a 30-second commercial before I started the challenge. Some feathers were recently ruffled by ads in the Bing apps like News, Finance, etc. and I am sure this will only add to the ruffling of those feathers :-)

Have you tried this game? What do you think?

Surface with Windows RT: Likes

After an agonizing wait, I finally got a chance to play with my new Surface with Windows RT, or as I will call it for sanity’s sake, Surface RT or simply, Surface. It has been a few days, and I thought instead of writing a full-fledged review, I’d focus on some key likes and a long list of dislikes. Nits that I picked. I discuss the likes here, and dislikes in a second post.

Surface RT

Overall, I really like the device. I was determined to evaluate its use as an iPad replacement in my house. To be clear, in our house, the iPad is used for Facebook, Twitter, web browsing (between my wife and I), and some Netflix/PBS Kids/kid games (our kids, 4 and 6 years old). We are not using the iPad as a computer, or a “creation device”. It is a pure consumption device, unless you call writing a tweet, “creation”.

In that use case, the Surface has ably fit in place of the iPad for the kids. The kids have enough games that they know of, and enough games that are new, that they actually like using the Surface. My wife has not used it much, but that is because at this point of time, she considers the Surface “my baby” so she is almost afraid to some extent, of using it. However, it is only a matter of time :-)

Last night, I saw my kids fight to get to use the Surface. Mind you, we got our second iPad 2 just so they can both have their own. So, despite having two iPads, they preferred to use the Surface. Granted, it could be a novelty thing, but still, it bodes well for me that they are actually liking the device with all its oddities, like the 16:9 aspect ratio.

I replaced my iPad too, almost

As for me, the Surface has almost replaced the iPad. The big gap at this point? Twitter app! I like Tweetro, but because of their recent issue with API token limit, I was unable to sign in on the Surface despite having used it (extensively) on my Windows 8 desktop. The other two big names, Rowi and MetroTwit are both far behind what I would call a basic Twitter experience, so to me they are unusable. I am forced to use the People app and Twitter website meanwhile, and that makes for a highly sub-optimal experience for a “power user” like yours truly.

The other small issue which makes me use the iPad when the PC is not being used, is access to my work email and calendar. My work has an app which allows me to access Exchange with native iOS mail, calendar and reminders apps. They haven’t yet provisioned it for Windows 8/RT.

Besides those two missing pieces, I am extremely happy with the device. I haven’t yet experienced some of the performance issues that many others have experienced, nor have I found any major app missing. It is thin enough, and light enough for me to use it like I used my iPad. (Important to note, my iPad has a strong Speck case which makes the iPad feel heavier.)

Windows 8 (and Windows RT)

Some part of why I like the Surface so much is due to Windows 8. For example, all my settings including my lock screen image, theme, pinned websites, favorites, web history, etc. automatically came through as I signed in with my Microsoft account. This is because I had set up my account and settings on my desktop PC earlier and set it up so all those settings were synced across devices via the cloud.

Also, thanks to Xbox Music Match, a service that is yet to officially roll out but works anyway, all my music was available on the Surface as soon as I signed in with my Microsoft account. This includes some playlists I created just the day before. Again, this is because my music was matched from my desktop PC (which in turn is connected to my home server where all my music, photos and videos are stored). In addition, I was able to impress some of my family members by searching for and playing a bunch of songs on-demand via the Xbox Music subscription service. While I have the Xbox Music Pass, the unlimited streaming (with some, ahem, limits) is automatically included with all Windows 8 and Windows RT devices.

The last thing I want to mention why I love the Surface and why I replaced my iPad with it? Office. I use Excel and Word in addition to OneNote, for various purposes. Things like tracking expenses, creating birthday lists, sending formal letters, etc. are all done on Excel, Word and OneNote. Having “real” Office on my tablet with a constant sync to SkyDrive (which allows me to collaborate with my wife for some of those items) is a huge benefit. Not what I would call the #1 reason to buy a Surface, but definitely a huge plus when considering a Surface over an iPad.

Suffice to say, I really like my Surface. I think it is money well spent, for my use of such a device. Having said that, there are issues I have with the device and I list them in my next post.

Xbox Price Cut By $50, Holiday Bundles Announced

Today, Microsoft has begun gearing up for the holidays as they’ve announced a $50 price cut for all their current system bundles. All major retailers including Amazon, Best Buy, Toys ‘R Us and others will be taking part in this price cut. As of now, the only Xbox that isn’t getting the price drop is the baseline 4GB Xbox without Kinect. These price cuts are said to be for a limited time only, so make sure to purchase your Xbox soon.

Microsoft has also announced that they will be selling multiple holiday bundles this year. One of these buncles will run you $399.99 and will include a 250GB Xbox with Kinect, Kinect Sports 2, Kinect Adventures, Dance Central 2 and a month of Xbox Live Gold. Microsoft has also announced two $299.99 Xbox bundles. One includes a 4GB Xbox, Kinect, Kinect Adventures, Kinect Disneyland Adventures and one month of Xbox Live Gold. The other $299.99 bundle includes a 250GB Xbox along with  Skyrim, Forza 4 Essentials Edition and, of course, a month of Xbox Live Gold. As of now, we’re not totally sure as to when these bundles will go on sale, though it should be soon.

Finally, Microsoft has also put their Halo 4 edition Xbox up for preorder with a shipment date of November 6th.

Source: Major Nelson via BGR

Xbox Music – a Great Service with Some Asterisks

I hate to focus on the missing aspects at the time of the launch of a great new service, but as a fan of Xbox Music (i.e., it its original name, Zune Music), I can’t help shake my head at the things that it does not do. I really like how Xbox Music looks and cannot wait to try it, but here’s hoping Microsoft works on quickly fixing these things.

First, a quick primer on what the newly announced service: Xbox Music is an all-you-can-eat music consumption service along with a music store all tied to a cloud-based sync service to enable your music and playlists to roam across devices. For now, these devices are Windows 8 PCs (including Windows RT devices), Windows Phone 8 phones and Xbox 360. The Xbox Music Pass, which enables free streaming of the entire catalog would cost $9.99 per month for phones and Xbox, and it would be free (ad-supported) for Windows 8 PCs and Windows RT devices. Additionally for using it on the Xbox you also need an Xbox LIVE Gold account, which comes with “tens of thousands” of music videos in addition to the streaming music. See my colleague Manan Kakkar’s take on Xbox Music here.

As you can see, everything is great about the service if you live within the Microsoft ecosystem, and if you are planning to buy one of the new devices (PCs, tablets, phones) launching this Fall. iOS and Android support is “coming soon”. So is the social piece, where you can share what you are listening to (and presumably, more) with your friends. Both of the these missing pieces are big for similar reasons: adoption and viral marketing.

First of all, let me clarify that there is no single service that provides what Xbox Music provides. While Pandora provides music discovery and streaming, it does not allow on-demand play nor does it have a music store. Rdio and Spotify provide on-demand streaming and a little bit of music discovery (via social and “radio”) but they don’t have their own stores. iTunes has perhaps the world’s largest store but it does not have a subscription plan. Xbox Music has all of the combined features, so you can actually ditch multiple services and use just Xbox Music.

However, one of the reason Rdio and Spotify are so popular is the social aspect. Friends share what they are listening to, making it easier to discover new music and also share the same with others. The other major factor of their success is that they are available on pretty much all major platforms in some shape or form, which in turn helps the social features even more – I don’t need to have all my friends on Windows 8, for example, in order to share my playlists with them.

iOS and Android being the fastest growing platforms today, are almost a requirement for any service which has ambitions of getting millions of users. Not having social is not as bad, but it helps in more than one way, so it is also quite a big missing piece. There is hope that this “new Microsoft” with its rapid pace of updating their products and services, is able to get these holes filled sooner than later.

Another glaring ommision is the concept of an Xbox Music Family Pass. In order to use the service optimally, you would want to use your own Microsoft account so that it can cater the selections to your taste. However, unlike the Xbox LIVE Gold accounts, there is no Family Pass for Xbox Music Service. This is a bummer because in a household, there is very likely going to be 2, 3 or 4 individuals who may want to use the service and having to pay $40 per month is not really a trivial decision. I was really hopeful that the lack of a Family Pass for Zune Music Pass would be remediated by an Xbox Music Family Pass. Looks like it was not to be. At least, not yet.

Setting those things aside, I think bundling Xbox Music for free on Windows PCs is a huge benefit, especially for Windows RT. For those not enthused by Windows 8/RT, who end up asking “why buy a Windows RT tablet instead of iPad or Android”, this becomes yet another feature in favor of Windows RT. With Xbox Music included for (ad-supported) free and Office Home and Student RT which comes bundled on Windows RT tablets, you have the world’s most popular productivity suite and on paper, the world’s only music service of its kind, included with a Windows RT tablet. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Android tablets should be part of this discussion at all given that the two successful devices so far have been 7″ (Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire), which don’t really compete with iPad or Windows RT.

So, in hindsight, the iOS/Android presence may actually be deliberately delayed, so that the case for buying a Windows RT tablet this holiday season is clearer. I like that pitch quite a lot because even if the Windows RT tablets are priced the same as an iPad, they will end up offering way more than an iPad can offer, and that, without adding the complexity of having a “full-blown PC”.

Xbox Music is a good move by Microsoft to showcase their execution of “devices and services” strategy, which previously would have been referred to as three screens and a cloud. Beautiful-looking services being delivered on well-made hardware, with roaming features so you can enjoy them the same way regardless of where you enjoy them? Now, that may actually be magical.

Devices, Services and the Modern Microsoft

In a letter addressed to Microsoft’s shareholders, customers, partners and employees, CEO Steve Ballmer laid out the direction in which Microsoft was about to embark upon, calling it a fundamental shift for the company. The gist of the change is that instead of being a software company, Microsoft was focused on becoming a devices and services company. This is a big shift in strategy and could very well be the defining moment for Microsoft as well as Ballmer.

Services

A lot of pundits have focused too much on the devices part of the strategy, and that is justified, given that traditionally Microsoft has not built hardware except the Xbox and some keyboards, mice and web cameras. The Surface tablet was introduced as “the first in a series of devices” that Microsoft intends to make. That statement, along with the phrase “devices of various form factors” in the letter would imply that Microsoft may in fact make other devices like phones, or smaller tablets in e-reader form factor.

However, I want to focus on the services part of the strategy. Microsoft is essentially saying that all the software it is making, is now going to be delivered as a service. We already see many of the server products being delivered as a service via Office 365, Azure, etc. This is a tremendous achievement because it is almost completely opposite of how Microsoft used to make money – boxed software or licensed software delivered as a product. Now, they have been able to pitch various types of models for the delivery as a service, like pure service-based delivery as Office 365, pure on-premise delivery as in Exchange Server (or any of the other servers) and the hybrid model where some part of the infrastructure stays on-premise and some gets delivered as a service.

It is not just the “business” side of things that have become the focus of services. On the consumer side Microsoft completely revamped their much-underutilized SkyDrive cloud storage service. Not only did they make it easier to use, but they made native apps available on all mobile platforms. See the devices angle that others have not focused much on? You can enjoy the benefits of their service across Windows, Mac, iOS, Android and Windows Phone. Similarly, they launched a brand new, extremely good-looking mail service Outlook.com, which takes the negativity associated with Hotmail brand away from Microsoft. The web app works nicely on all modern browsers, including mobile browsers on iPad and Android tablets. They also made Outlook.com work with Exchange Active Sync (EAS) so all modern smartphones can connect to it with 2-way push on email, contacts and calendars. Another huge service that is coming soon is the Xbox Music and Xbox Video, combined with their cross-platform app Xbox SmartGlass.

The other services piece for Microsoft is Windows Azure, both as a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) and Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS). This area of focus is not brand new, but the pace at which the teams at Microsoft are innovating and competing (on price) shows that they are really serious about these services as well. They are investing a lot of time and money in improving the feature-set and filling the holes that the modern developers (read: not only Windows developers) have reported as crucial for them to adopt Windows as a development platform. Adding support to open source software and frameworks to Azure is a good example of how Microsoft is saying they are a service provider which does not have any favorites when it comes to tools and technologies. The market sure seems to like it because Azure has gained not just a lot of new customers (as Microsoft claims), but they have started reversing the negativity associated with Microsoft when it comes to the open source community.

Massive Change

As you can see, there is a lot of change Microsoft has stepped into, and these things are not going to start showing results immediately. When you are moving an oil tanker like Microsoft, turning it is not quick, nor easy. However, the speed at which Microsoft has pulled off this change, is amazing. They have realized that Windows is not going to have the same clout as it used to have in the 90s. They cannot force themselves onto customers, partners or consumers. Everyone has choices now, and more importantly, as tablet and smartphone sales have proven, people prefer smaller, simpler, mobile devices over larger, more powerful, but more complex devices like laptops. Microsoft knew they had to quickly retool themselves, or face irrelevance.

“PC” Market Or “Computing Devices” Market?

The PC market is now morphing into a more general category of “computing devices” market. Some prefer laptops, some prefer desktops, many prefer tablets, and some are even ok with just their smartphones. In this new world, Windows (which I consider to be 8, RT and Phone combined) would probably end up at no more than 30-40% while iOS and Android take similar shares. With focus on services that work across devices of all form factors, and more importantly, across all OSes, Microsoft is positioned well to take advantage of the new wave of computing.

Devices

Finally, as for the devices part of the strategy, it is important to note that while Microsoft may make their own devices in addition to the Surface tablets, they are definitely not going to become a hardware company. Making hardware at scale is very hard, especially in today’s world of supply chains spanning many companies and geographies, and hardware design needing specialized materials to get the most efficient devices made. I firmly believe Microsoft said devices in the letter to denote the importance of being present on all devices, some of which will showcase their own OS, while some may be running other OSes.

It is a bold strategy. One may argue this is probably the only thing Microsoft could have done to keep their enterprise customers happy while moving forward into the new computing era along with the consumers who have started embracing competing platforms in large numbers. By defining themselves as a company that provides services across all types of devices, Microsoft is ensuring they are built to avoid the irrelevance they would be relegated to if they stayed stuck to the old process of providing incremental updates to all their products.

Looking forward to seeing what happens this holiday season, and more importantly, how Microsoft reinvents itself as it starts providing updates to its entire line of services in the next year.

What I Wish Today’s Microsoft Announcement Will Be

Windows Logo

On Thursday June 14, late in the afternoon, Microsoft sent out invites to media for a special event in Los Angeles, CA which promised to be a major announcement not to be missed. Since it was so cryptic, it created a flurry of rumors, leaks and conjecture. Several pundits have written about what it could be, connected the dots and come to a conclusion and in fact this morning, one of those guesses was even shot down.

Instead of trying to think of what it could be, I am going to write about what I hope it will be. Based on the fact that this event is in Los Angeles, I am hoping it has everything to do with entertainment tie-ups. At E3 earlier this month, Microsoft took the wraps off their new entertainment brand (Xbox-everything) and showed some bits of their new (improved?) Xbox Companion app, Smart Glass. Also, Microsoft gave a glimpse of Xbox Music, their successor to the Zune Music service. However, neither Smart Glass nor Xbox Music were looked at in detail. What we do know is they said that the Xbox Music service will have a catalog of 30 million tracks (compared to Zune Music today, which is around 20 million).

So, here’s my list of what I hope may come today:

  • Details of Xbox Music service: Additional deals to get the catalog from today’s 20 million tracks to the promised 30 million. Also, most importantly, access for the service from other platforms besides Windows (8, RT and Phone) – so, iOS apps and Android apps.
  • Unveiling of Xbox Video service: While it was made clear that Xbox is the center of Microsoft’s entertainment strategy, not much was discussed about Xbox Video. I hope that Microsoft is able to cut some deals with Hollywood to get exclusive content built into Xbox Video. Hollywood has got to be scared of Apple (and Netflix), so a good tie up with Microsoft would of course make sense for them.
  • Merge Zune Music Pass and Xbox LIVE Gold: The most ridiculous thing about Xbox as an entertainment device is that to access almost any entertainment service on the Xbox, you need an Xbox LIVE Gold account, listed at $60/year. Although there are a lot of promotions for the Gold account (Amazon routinely sells these for $45 or so), it is still an unnecessary cost for normal (read: non-gaming) customers to access services they already pay for. On the other hand, Zune Music Pass is an awesome subscription service which can be accessed over the Xbox in addition to the PC and Windows Phone. It is time for Microsoft to merge the two and call it the Xbox Pass which enables access to the video services on the Xbox platform, as well as unlimited music.
  • Xbox Lite: The Xbox today is still seen as a gaming device which can also do entertainment, never mind the stats which show that Xbox users now consume more content on the device than play games. Also, a lot of households have multiple TV sets and getting a $200 Xbox for each TV may not be worth it just for say, Netflix and Hulu. What if Microsoft made a Xbox Lite which like Apple TV would have close to no storage and would not be used for gaming. This would work great for the non-gaming customers who want to consume the unlimited music catalog and also get access to the tons of video services now available on the Xbox. If it is priced at $79, it would be a super hit, I’d imagine.
  • Announce global availability of all of the above: Most of the Zune/Xbox LIVE services are poorly represented around the world. It would be fantastic if Microsoft is able to get availability parity across the globe.

Note, I am staying away from tablets, phones and cellular stuff. I do hope that it is not about a Microsoft tablet or a Nokia phone. On the cellular front though, some random rumor about a Verizon event have some tie in to this Microsoft announcement intrigues me – Verizon is a huge hold out when it comes to Windows Phones and any partnership they have with Microsoft, I see it as a positive step.

What do you think? Too much to hope for?

Microsoft Updates Xbox Live App for iOS

Last year, Microsoft released an Xbox Live app for iOS device owners. Now, Microsoft has updated its iOS app that takes the app to version 1.5. The app now allows users to control content on your Xbox from your iPhone or iPod touch. Previously, the app allowed users to access Xbox Live achievements, connect with friends, and change your 3D avatar. Now it lets users “connect, control and discover content” from their iOS devices via a number of new features.

A full list of features can be found below:

What’s New in Version 1.5

iPhone:

  • Use your iPhone with your Xbox to connect, control and discover content on your console. Connect your iPhone for access to a quick list of your most recent console activity. Control your content with play, pause, fast forward and rewind media controls. Find fresh entertainment to play in the new Discover section.
  • Improved Authentication to make it more stable

iPad:

  • Improved Authentication to make it more stable
  • iPad high-resolution images