A new operating system is not the most exciting Xbox 360 launch this year. There are no hordes of eager consumers queuing outside GAME to get their hands on it. No outlandish launch party. There's a distinct lack of chainsaw-wielding monsters, super cars or spartan warriors. What we have are menus. Shiny menus. But menus all the same.
MAKING A DASH
Yet to dismiss Microsoft's Xbox updates for those reasons would be doing it a huge disservice. It’s these updates that have kept Xbox 360 relevant. The console doesn’t feel like a six-year old device and isn’t selling like one either. It’s a surprise the firm’s competitors haven’t followed a similar strategy.
"That's why we are market leader at the moment," answers Microsoft's UK consumer channels group lead Neil Thompson.I've gone on record before saying we will give you a new Xbox every year without giving you a new Xbox. That's what we’ve done.
"The reason we got into the traditional console business was because we felt, as a software company, that we could make a difference through these sort of innovations. You need content innovation. You need innovation around the interactive technology, which is what Kinect has done. And you need services to keep refreshing themselves.
“When you get all of those things working together, then the hardware will have a much longer life than what we traditionally understood in this business.”
The most obvious difference with the latest Xbox dashboard is how it looks. Microsoft has adopted a tile-system (or ‘metro user interface’ as Microsoft calls it), which is designed to make Xbox Live easier to navigate.
"The Metro interface is integrated with every single application on every screen,” says Xbox Live UK product manager Pawan Bhardwaj. “The pervious interface was quite overwhelming and you had two hubs, the Kinect hub and the controller-based hub. We have got rid of those two and now have one hub that you can control with gestures, the controller or with your voice.”
This tile look isn’t new. It is already used in Windows Phone 7 and Microsoft is incorporating it into its next PC operating system, Windows 8. The firm is making sure all its interfaces look alike. Why?
“We’ve found a consumer-friendly way for people to navigate devices,” explains Thompson. ”It’s intuitive irrespective of the piece of plastic and metal you’re using.”
Along with the physical changes, Microsoft has also added functionality, namely Bing search. Kinect users can simply say “Bing Harry Potter” and the console will list all the Harry Potter content found on Xbox Live – be it movies, soundtracks or games. And this can be broken down into categories.It goes some way, Microsoft hopes, to fixing the problem of finding content in the digital space.
Thompson adds: “Wherever you are searching for content, you need a facility to make it intuitive and quick. The ability to say what you want and Xbox just delivers it, that is a powerful element versus having to look through multiple menus.”
The new update offers some hints to what the future of Xbox might look like. Microsoft has introduced cloud storage to Xbox Live, which lets users back-up their saved games to the cloud and access it on a different Xbox 360. Surely it is just a matter of time before Microsoft launches an OnLive-style cloud streaming service?
“For full feature games? I think we are a while off,” says Thompson. “We need broadband speeds to become consistent and bigger. But the Government has announced a massive investment in Broadband capacity, so who knows. There will be a point where you will have those sort of facilities.”
The new dashboard also opens new advertising opportunities, and Microsoft believes Xbox Live can be a more effective ad platform than your typical TV channel.
“We are fairly unique as a company in that we cover the phone, the PC and the living room,” says Thompson. “The ad model is changing. Broadcast advertising is getting smaller and personalised digital advertising, based on behaviours and trending, is exponentially growing. And Xbox is the biggest entertainment service in the living room worldwide. There is no one bigger.
“You can imagine over time, as we learn more about what sort of content people like consuming, we can get clever in how we promote that content to individuals.“
Microsoft has a dream. It wants Xbox to become ‘a true entertainment platform.’ And the success of this new dashboard will be defined by what consumers do with it.
“It is all about how frequently people are using the services and what breadth of services they are using,” says Thompson. “It is fair to say when we first started Xbox Live, it was all core gaming services – Halo match-ups and the rest of it. But it has moved on.”
And to ensure new services get used, Microsoft will add some 14 new applications to Xbox Live in the UK (40 globally) between now and Christmas, with LoveFilm, YouTube and 4OD amongst the headline acts. All of these content providers have been integrated into Xbox, they use a similar menu system and they have Bing built-in.
Granted, the launch of a few new apps, a search engine and re-designed menus may not be as exciting as a Call of Duty launch. Consumers aren’t flocking to GAME so they can use Bing.
But it is through these updates that users are still engaged, still spending money. And it’s why the six year-old Xbox 360 remains the most advanced games console on the market.