In hindsight, SmartGlass was Microsoft's most significant announcement at E3 this year.
Buried between key core games and gut-rumbling gunfire demos, and itself presented with too-cheesy catchphrases, SmartGlass at the time felt like the
now typical ‘non-games moment' during the Xbox presentation.
Yet in the wake of further announcements the strategy for this new gimmick has become transparent, rather than an opaque nod to the growing tablet market.
In LA at the start of June, SmartGlass seemed like a token gesture to the principle of the ‘second screen' – the phrase given to describe how consumers frequently have extra devices like a smartphone, laptop or tablet while they are watching TV or playing video games.
But Microsoft last week revealed its iPad rival Surface and separately unveiled plans to let the same apps and content run between Windows itself and its smartphones variant.
And with that it all slots into place: Microsoft simply isn't going to let its HDTV games business get smashed in as people start to favour portable devices.
So what does SmartGlass do? To go all buzzwordy: it acts a lot like glass itself, presumably hence the buzzwordy name. It can reflect what should be on your TV via streaming, or offers a window into complementary material.
At E3, the examples given were: watching part of a movie on a tablet while travelling, then picking up where you left off when switching to TV later on; having a second or third entry-point for the Xbox Music service; consulting a background guide to the mythos of something like Game of Thrones while it plays on the TV; and, for games, setting out playbook moves in a game like Madden using touch controls or just having the Halo Waypoint community running while you play the game proper.
Yes, some of that is pretty convoluted – but it's also designed to offer convenience, re-adapting Xbox use to people's behaviour patterns.
In a world of iPads, ultrabooks and Android phones, people behave differently around technology. Just ask Nintendo – its Wii U console is designed to address the same changes in the market.
My own household is a tiny little example,” Xbox Europe VP Chris Lewis remarked to MCV at E3.
My son always has his laptop open and his phone in his hand while he's watching the football. I'm not just contriving that for this discussion, it's constantly what he does. A lot of that is him just trash talking with his friends or texting or whatever, but the integration through Live particularly would give him a much richer experience.
And we're seeing that the appetite to have more than one screenopen when you're experiencing something is everywhere.”
Microsoft Studios boss Phil Spencer told MCV that SmartGlass is a way to let people access their Xbox while on the move – or in other words, let Microsoft follow people when they are away from their Xbox.
Players will then think about that connection even when I'm out of the living room”, he said, so that they are always connected to the entertainment they love”.
Microsoft falls back on this ‘entertainment' crutch a lot, and it can too often ring hollow, but in this instance Spencer means Xbox Live being the ‘entertainment', or the broadcaster if you will, but one no longer confined to one device.
We've built up this service [in Xbox Live] that now exists on all these different screens that you have and we can use that persistent connection.”
Couple that with the recent announcement of the Surface tablet and bolstered game activity on Windows Phone, and the picture becomes very clear.
Microsoft knows that the market is moving on beyond the console, and moving onto devices it can never hope to dominate. And it has to follow. When an Xbox exec says we'll go wherever our users are”, that isn't actually aspirational nonsense – it's a concession to the fact that Microsoft's users aren't just users of Microsoft's operating systems. They own
devices that have software from sworn enemies Apple and Google.
This is best summed up by something GameStop international VP Mike Mauler said to us at the show: They even said the ‘i' word.”
At E3 on stage, Microsoft said that SmartGlass will also come as an app that can be installed on iOS and Android devices as well as Windows Phone ones – the ultimate acknowledgement on how the market has changed. Accepting that, and marrying this new portable world with the established console one makes a lot of sense in that context.
Unfortunately, when we asked how exactly it will complement console games outside of the demo shown, Microsoft's execs prefer to talk more broadly about how SmartGlass can
enrich the whole experience rather than the stand-alone” for now.
That's because, as Spencer admitted to us, things like the Halo and Madden demos are still just concepts for now.
Only one game, Ascend, has actually been announced for SmartGlass so far. But that's partly because Microsoft knows it has to let developers play with the technology first. The firm has been down this route before after all.
Said Spencer: At the launch of Kinect I stood up and I showed Kinect Sports and Kinectimals and Joy Ride and Dance Central.
A couple of those franchise took off,” he said and, without saying it, alluded to the fact that not everything for Kinect did take off.
I think of SmartGlass in a similar way for games – it's going to evolve over the years as developers get their hands on the technology and build stuff.”
Certainly, Microsoft isn't waiting around – the SDK for SmartGlass rolled out last week. Even if the content isn't there yet, the concept is.