Microsoft developed the Xbox One to be the future of the living room. Instead, we got a Google TV that we'll actually want to use. And it even plays games.
Microsoft's reveal of the Xbox One at an event in Redmond on Tuesday seemingly left audiences a bit underwhelmed: After all, wasn't Microsoft supposed to announce a game console? Instead, the first glimpse of Microsoft's set-top box included a live broadcast of "The Price Is Right."
Viewed conceptually, the One somewhat awkwardly straddles the intersection between televisions, game consoles, and the PC. We've seen this before. Three years ago, Google launched the Logitech Revue as a new experience for television that combines the TV that you already know with the freedom and power of the Internet. "With the entire Internet in your living room, your TV becomes more than a TV--it can be a photo slideshow viewer, a gaming console, a music player and much more," Google promised.
But how the One combines those elements is also incredibly polished, packaged together with what should probably be a killer line-up of games, the amazing Kinect camera technology, and a brand new user interface. If you're thinking that this is Windows 8 for the Xbox, you're on the wrong track. With the One, Microsoft will actually succeed.
Like the Google TV, the One sits between your cable box and your television, passing HDMI content in and out. Microsoft executives demonstrated some quick context switches between viewing TV programs, a program guide, and games, using varied terms such as "Watch TV," "Show me what's on HBO," and "Watch CBS" to distinguish between them.
Nevertheless, some elements of the One feel forced. Unlike a traditional Xbox game console, the One gives you PC-like apps, such as Internet Explorer and Skype--Microsoft's version of the Google Chrome and Hangouts feature that Google hoped would give it a foothold into the living room. But there just isn't any evidence to suggest that users actually care about surfing the Web on a TV while viewing a TV show or movie.
Based on a Wired profile, we also know that the One runs not one but three operating systems: a tiny Host OS, which controls the bootup process; a Shared OS, which appears to be a pared down version of the Windows kernel to run apps like Skype and IE; and the Exclusive partition, the home of traditional Xbox games. Under the hood, at least, Microsoft has done a lot of work to position the One as a unified set-top experience.
Kinect + games: the One's recipe for success
The Kinect sensor bar that Microsoft launched in 2010 has always had a touch of magic about it. Kinect may have struggled as a gaming interface--although a number of rhythm and dancing games wouldn't be the same without it--but its ability to recognize human forms and voices has always been head and shoulders above what other game consoles and developers offered. Even Leap Motion, seen as a rival to the Kinect for Windows, lacks the ability to process voice commands.
Microsoft often talks about natural user interfaces. While the launch screen (or Home screen, as Microsoft referred to it) looks suspiciously Windows 8-ish with its brightly-colored tiles, users can literally wave it away. Voice commands give players the ability to cut through the noise. "Play Forza," for example, should launch a One user straight into the game.
And let's not forget the games. Although we're going to see more of what Microsoft and its partners have planned at the E3 show in a few weeks, Microsoft Studios chief Phil Spencer promised 15 games for the Xbox One, eight of which will be new "franchises." Forget the relative paucity of Windows apps in the Windows Store--the Xbox has always been able to attract top-tier, AAA developers, and that looks like it will continue. That has always what has driven a console's success, and what should keep the Xbox atop the two-horse race between itself and Sony. (Sorry, Nintendo.)
In both of these categories, Google has fallen woefully short. Early apps that allowed the phone to serve as a controller were neglected by users, and voice control never quite made it, either. And while Google boasts about 800,000 apps in the Android Market, just a handful of quality apps are available for Google TV.
How does it all fit together?
What we didn't see at the One's launch was how this all fits into the grand ecosystem of Windows devices. Remember, Windows Phone has an Xbox app, so will there be closer ties here? Microsoft executives reminded us that we'll have Windows tablets, and presumably phones, to provide us with the second-screen "SmartGlass" technology to provide supplementary information and controls.
And there are more questions: Will the Xbox connect to Games for Windows? Will there be cross-platform play on future Halo iterations, for example? Will Skype use Microsoft Xbox gamertags as contacts, or will it only be a gamer's traditional Skype contacts? We've asked Microsoft for additional details, but they have yet to respond.
Within the United States, at least, Microsoft owns the living room. According to unreleased NPD data , Microsoft not only outsold all other consoles last month, but has done so for more than two years straight. What Microsoft needs to do now is use its hegemony in the living room to build outward. We can assume that there's a plan in place. Now we need to hear it.