Make no mistake. Microsoft’s new operating system, tablet and music service doesn’t mean Xbox is out of the spotlight.
The platform holder hopes the raft of new hardware and software going live today (Friday, October 26th) has built bridges between the likes of Windows 8 and its console – and will transform the Xbox brand into a games service, not just a games device.
Does that sound like an awful lot of high-level Microsoft buzzwords? At first glance, yes, the claims feel a little hollow. This week, the firm pushed out an update to its 360 dashboard, adding features such as Internet Explorer, which it says ‘enhances’ its 70m-selling console.
Today’s Windows 8 launch adds a digital app store and Xbox-branded apps, plus SmartGlass functionality which ‘expands Xbox to hundreds of millions of devices’.
New and rebranded services like Xbox Music and Xbox Video, meanwhile, make more claims on that over-used Microsoft label ‘entertainment’.
“This is a big week for Microsoft,” Xbox Live product manager Pav Bhardwaj told MCV at briefings for the service this week. “From the Dashboard and IE for Xbox through to launch of Windows 8 and its apps, we’ve created a seamless bridge between a console, PC and smart device.”
Microsoft has made much of its ambitious plan to link up its platforms through its SmartGlass app, which was unveiled at E3 and provides either companion experiences for the things on your TV screen, or a portable screen to watch content on the go.
These are “not innovations for the sake of it” insisted Bhardwaj. The first examples of games content for SmartGlass are apps to support Dance Central and Forza from developers Harmonix and Turn 10, although other content is thin on the ground.
“You will see SmartGlass in games – it’s the same with Kinect, where we haven’t incorporated it into every experience. But if we can use SmartGlass to enhance the experience, we will. We announced a game called Ascend at E3, and we will be sharing more about that soon. Plus there are already other first-party and third-party apps in the works, although we have nothing specific to announce yet.”
But the biggest innovations, perhaps, are the deeper ones that look to fix issues around promoting and displaying digital content for games, movies and music.
On 360, new dashboard elements have been added around recommending games based on the other titles you have played or looked at, while another new features allows you to ‘pin’ links and stuff you’ll be interested in later to a list in the front end.
Microsoft’s also gone further into the tiled display interface – now common across Windows, Xbox
and Windows Mobile. There are more segments for promoted content, ads and recommendations.
An Xbox app on Windows 8, meanwhile, promotes PC games in the Windows Store, and even allows console owners to buy content remotely and have it sent to their unit at home.
MICROSOFT’S NEW TUNE
It’s actually clearest on Xbox Music, the new service that Microsoft isn’t afraid to say combines the best of rival services like Spotify (streaming), iTunes (digital sales) and Pandora (US-only recommendation and radio service). Demonstrations showcased the ability to buy content and stream it on a handheld device, and then resume play on the console. That’s easily done with music and its smaller filesizes over decent broadband, but these principles could shape all of Microsoft’s efforts to sell digital content and the games store specifically in a future era of faster internet.
“We’re operating across all kinds of platforms with these services, with the idea being that we will be wherever you are,” explained Bhardwaj. Although there is a bit of delay until SmartGlass arrives on non-Microsoft platforms like iOS and Android, the device-agnostic aspiration is clear.
Some quiet repositioning of the Xbox brand has deeper ramifications, too, as the console name goes from being something simply slapped on a piece of hardware to a label used by Microsoft to represent all of its games, music and video efforts, regardless of the device played on.
Sure, it has the potential to be misunderstood, and underestimated. Microsoft’s wont is to pack its messaging with plenty of buzzwords and innovative ideas, and little content to showcase them.
In fact, the announcements and activity this week could be Xbox’s most significant shift yet. While in a games sense very little has changed – there are no updates or changes to Games on Demand downloads, or the way that Arcade or Indie games are sold – the way device owners can access, buy and find out about content has been overhauled and expanded.
And maybe that’s better for the industry in the long term than rushing out that supposedly ‘overdue’ next-generation successor to the Xbox 360.