Microsoft is reportedly looking to closely integrate its upcoming Xbox successor with live television – but it’s using a very cumbersome way to do so.

photo: digitpedia

Microsoft is one of those companies that has a shot at changing TV. Instead, it’s betting on preserving the status quo, in a bad way:  Microsoft’s next Xbox is supposed to have deep integration with live TV programming, according to a report by the Verge’s Tom Warren, who wrote Wednesday that the game console will be able to overlay a programming guide and other UI elements over the feed coming from your cable box. Here’s Warren describing the details of this integration:

“The functionality will work by taking a cable box signal and passing it through to the Xbox via HDMI, allowing Microsoft’s console to overlay a UI and features on top of an existing TV channel or set-top box.”

Sounds familiar? That’s because the same kind of HDMI daisy-chaining has been used by Google TV devices ever since the launch of that platform in 2010. Microsoft’s approach supposedly goes a bit further, thanks to a cooperation with pay TV operators. The Verge article doesn’t go into details on what this exactly means, but one possible scenario could be that the Xbox controls basic set-top box functionality via Internet Protocol, meaning that the device will be able to switch the channels without the need for an IR blaster.

Having that kind of overlay functionality can be neat, at least when it works. Consumers won’t have to switch inputs on their TVs anymore to switch from an Xbox game or a movie on Netflix to live television. And at this point, I’d take anything that Microsoft designs over the traditional cable guide.

But let’s not fool ourselves: Plugging your cable box into your Xbox, and then connecting that box to your TV? That’s just a crummy hack, which points to all of what’s wrong with TV today.

Cable boxes need to die, not another lifeline

Everyone hates cable boxes. They’re hard to use, outdated pieces of technology. Heck, at this point, even cable TV operators would love to get rid of them and instead deliver video over IP. Oh, and by the way, your cable box can consume more electricity than your fridge.

Microsoft would have been in a great position to replace the cable box. Get rid of that old, humming, power-hungry fridge and replace it with something leaner, to stay with the metaphor. Instead, its answer is to get you a second fridge. The next-generation Xbox is reported to be another always-on device, not only adding to your power bill but also making you wonder: why do you need two devices to watch the same content you used to watch with just one?

This won’t work for cord cutters

Yeah I know, cord cutters are a small minority, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. But if there’s a lesson to be learned from the struggles of Google TV, it’s that people don’t buy these kinds of devices to make cable look more fun. They want to replace cable with these devices.

HDMI pass-through is the ultimate admission of defeat

Just a few years ago, Microsoft had grand ambitions for the future of television. The company was looking to start its own virtual cable service which would have competed squarely with Comcast & Co., much in the same way Intel is looking to do now. There were even discussions to kickstart these efforts with some high-profile exclusive content. Apparently, Microsoft was considering A DEAL to bring Conan O’Brien exclusively to the Xbox.

Fast forward to 2013, and Microsoft’s big idea for the future of television is an HDMI cable? It’s the ultimate admission of defeat, and it comes with a heavy price: Microsoft puts its integration of live TV feeds into its Xbox  at the mercy of cable operators, which could at any point in time break the integration and make your picture go black thanks to a sneaky little piece of copy-protection technology called HDCP.

That means that Microsoft likely won’t dare to display ads on the second screen that don’t come with the blessing of your cable company. And don’t expect an Aereo app to come to Xbox any time soon either.

Ultimately, Microsoft’s vision for TV is to make the TV devices and services you have today look better, and it’s using a cumbersome work-around to do so. Call that what you will, but it’s not innovation.

Image courtesy of Flickr user digitpedia.

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  1. Hang on there, Mary Sunshine. HDMI represents a decent step for the legacy to have a smooth transition without having to boil the ocean.

    But let’s just say they do want to get rid of the cable box at some point and deliver Cable via IP. What do they need to do? Add a LAN connection to the XBox. Well why don’t they do that instead?

    Oops, there’s one already there.

    So you mean that with both a LAN connector and HDMI they can do it all and the only thing they may have to change is the software?

    Wow. Maybe Microsoft knows something about computers after all.



    1. with digital the signal is not only in bits but also encrypted, copy-once protected and more such fun restricted stuff :( and to legally decode it you will need the key. it seems all about licensings these days and this is killing the progress.

    2. R. Chase Razabdouski Bob Warfield Monday, April 15, 2013

      Bob, you said everything the proverbial “we” happened to be thinking, and in a much nicer tone I’d imagine.

  2. I agree with Bob Warfield’s comment – good HDMI overlay and putting unified (and good) software and UX in front of all the nasty other boxes in your living room is (I think) a solid strategy, and one that Microsoft/xBox would be smart to do, also one that Apple TV would be smart to do. I wrote about this last summer, http://ilikecode.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/apple-tv-what-id-buy-what-id-sell/, when the rumors about new Apple TV products were pending. A set-top-box with a good remote which does good HDMI and other input consolidation and control and overlays will resolve the many issues that plague the use of TV for anything but basic watching in most people’s households – whoever does this right will make many consumers very, very, very happy.

  3. I am going to disagree with both of you. You say this is a way to support a smooth transition, but it assumes that this overlay will work with the variety of providers on the market and that they will allow MS to ‘mess’ with ‘their’ User Experience and we haven’t factored in any of the content providers themselves. It is simply not going to happen

    MS would have been better off buying someone like Roku and embedding the capabilities in the box.

    Just another reason that this box is going to be irrelevant like WiiU. They have lost touch with their core demographic.

  4. Ok HDMI 1.4 cords we use those to push the 1080p and beyond including 3D. That’s one fact. The next fact is how would Microsoft sell a console that transform’s tv to a controller less cable box that uses a provider service if the provider makes less money a month without the use of their crappy cable boxes. Another rumor suggests that the next Xbox will consume less power than the 360 so I believe they may have thought of the two power consumptions. Personally I’d rather look and speak to an Xbox OS than any TV guide.

  5. The problem Microsoft is going to encounter as they beef up entertainment content for the XBox is the added subscription fee they want to charge consumers to watch Netflix, Amazon VOD, etc on top of their respective services subscription fees. Why bother needlessly padding MSFT’s pockets? Just purchase a Roku or other streaming device. What useful service or content can an overlay provide anyway? Google didn’t offer anything of value on their Google TV overlay even with all their search services and internet content so what makes Microsoft think they can do it? The subscription fee will nix this for many consumers once it’s realized.

    1. I agree that requiring Xbox Gold subscription, which I think is about 50$/year to get additional services that aren’t online gaming is a mistake. Why would I want to pay extra after I paid for Amazon Prime, netflix, hulu plus, etc. I do think Xbox brings some services and experience that other streamers don’t by making deals with companies like UFC and WWE for pay per view and Verizon and Comcast which stream live TV channels to Xbox (so if you have a cable box in one room, the Xbox can show some channels through an app in the other room instead of needing another box, it’s useless in the same room)

      The big problem with the streaming video services on the Xbox in the interface. It’s just to hard to switch “channels”, it’s a really inferior solution to regular TV (OTA or Cable).
      You can’t even jump back to the previous stream you were watching, you have exit an app (let’s say MLB for example) and go into another app (lets say verizon FIOS) which takes too long, so it’s just useless.

      They need to combine all the live streams in the various apps and whatever channels they get through a connected cable box and make it all work like one cable box.

    2. R. Chase Razabdouski Bryan Monday, April 15, 2013

      Or just strike the appropriate deal with premium services…

  6. I may have misread the rumour, but I thought it suggested coax in, like cable card capability.

    1. My 360 serves as a STB in my bedroom for u-verse but granted they have a lot more flexibility than cable companies current structure requiring a card or box.

  7. We need to live in reality. cable is still the greatest TV experience for many. I believe MS is doing the right thing. Whether broadcasters’ signals come via IP or good old cable, it will remain available to on the xbox. It is a great move. HDMI is just a cable to link two devices, what’s the big deal? How could it be any other way?

    I just hope I’ll be able to input my digital antenna signal in the next xbox. That remains to be seen.

  8. 最终冰器红豆 Wednesday, April 10, 2013

    Microsoft’s vision for the future of TV is… an HDMI cable? No.

    The future of XBox is one cable box. “The master-box. One box to rule them all”.

    Let’s watch if Microsoft is as capable as Sauron.

  9. alexmedawayhasleftthebuilding Wednesday, April 10, 2013

    i never learned to use the aux button.

  10. Cable and Media companies control both the pipes and content for TV. There is no “Magical” disruptive device that can break that monopoly. The best strategy is to partner with cable and content companies like Microsoft is doing, and then look for any opportunity to stab them in the back later using a Trojan Horse strategy.

    1. R. Chase Razabdouski Bob Monday, April 15, 2013

      Well said. This is exactly what Verizon did with FiOS to even get the right to compete with cable in the first place. All too often people forget that services like FiOS were once (and recently) illegal in parts of the U.S.

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