2011
12.06

Back when I was a child, circa 1989, I begged my parents for a Nintendo Entertainment System. See, my parents were never much in favor of things that kept us inside the house for long periods of time. Instead, they wanted us to be kids, i.e., to go outside be creative on our own. Looking back on the situation they couldn’t have been more right! But that’s a hard argument to justify to an 11-year-old boy whose friends no longer want to join him out at the baseball field because they are too captivated by helping Super Mario save Princess Toadstool.

The reason this is on my mind today is because I’m sure similar arguments are occurring all over the world right now, following Microsoft’s latest Xbox 360 announcement. In fact, I would bet the majority of these arguments are coming not from the 11-year-old boys, but instead from full-grown men who have just been introduced to something one market expert is calling “the benchmark against which all other living room initiatives should be compared.”

The company has revamped its Xbox LIVE product to create what it is calling an “experience” that blends all things entertainment—TV, movies, music, games—into one mega, voice controlled collection of coolness.T his means all games, movies, TV shows, music, and any other content you can think of will all be controlled from one little box, leveraging the voice and hand controls that have made Microsoft’s Kinect for Xbox 360 so successful.

With this new “experience” Microsoft is taking what has worked so well with Kinect and combining it with its Bing search to turn your voice into a remote control for this box. Want to call up the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory (which I am addicted to these days) on Hulu? All you have to do is say the word. How about that copy of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation that none of us can get enough of this time of year? Speak to the box! Or, how about that new collection of music you just downloaded? I guess you could sing it out, if you had a good voice.

All of this seems very cool and certainly more attractive than the pain-staking endeavor of entering the name of a show you want your DVR to record by hand! Oh, how technology has spoiled us. But I think the bigger eye opener here is the statement Microsoft has made with this announcement.

With this announcement, Microsoft may be laying the foundation for us consumers to eventually drop our cable boxes. That has been the goal of everyone from smaller players like Roku and Boxee Box to tech titans Google and Apple, all of which have been met with less than stellar results.

So why do I think Microsoft might have the inside track? Well, for starters it already has more than 35 million subscribers to its Microsoft LIVE service, and has launched with promises from 40 leading TV and entertainment providers to bring customized, voice-controlled experiences to this new Xbox 360 announcement. The service has launched with the likes of Hulu, Netflix, and ESPN, to name a few, but Microsoft lists out 27 additional content providers that will come on board later this month.

Of those 27, the most intriguing to me is a Verizon FiOS. That means Xbox LIVE Gold members who subscribe to both FiOS TV and Internet can view select live channels through their Xbox consoles without the need for any extra hardware. Initially it will be only 26 channels, but that is a great start to eventually get all live programming streaming to your TV without the need for a cable box.

The nature of TV viewing—and gaming for that matter—is changing as we know it. We’ve seen reports where the market is anticipating big things for connected TVs this year, and it certainly seems like the service providers and product makers are working hard to make those predictions hold true.

Speaking with executives at Panasonic recently they acknowledged the need to focus on the experience that has become the TV these days. Consumers want to view content on their smartphones, tablets, and computers, along with their TV. While I don’t dispute that notion, I still believe that the TV will remain the center of household entertainment, but only if the sets become intelligent and the services much more attuned to the changing demands of consumers. And that is why I am so intrigued by Microsoft’s announcement. Could it be that Microsoft will solve a puzzle that both Google and Apple have yet to piece together? Stay tuned (I know, I know, so expected …)

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