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Really, Microsoft? Your vision for the future of TV is… an HDMI cable?

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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 (s MSFT) 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 (s GOOG) 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 (s NFLX) 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 They’re hard to use, outdated pieces of technology.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 (s INTC) 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.

30 Responses to “Really, Microsoft? Your vision for the future of TV is… an HDMI cable?”

  1. You guys act like they have a choice. The cable industry has a death grip on their content and the government is going to have to pry it from their hands. You can’t just throw a coax jack on the back of a box and start watching TV.

    Cable card is the only alternative, and it only exists because the FCC forces the operators to support it. Two comapnies have ever made a box that can access paid cable service, TiVo and MS. I thounk they got a pretty god idea what it is capable of. The problem is cable card was crippled so it only just barely works and you have to give up on things like VOD.

    I will agree that overlay is a hack at best, but there are only two paths forward. Force the cable industries into providing an open gateway which is more or less what allvid was and will probably never see the light of day, or stream everything over the internet through deals with the content producers. Google probably has the right idea by just becoming a cable provider.

  2. Bill Gates

    Thank you Microsoft, for giving us such great technologies. Windows has always been great, and the numerous innovations that you have brought to us has given us inmesurable happiness. We’re going to miss you.

  3. I agree with the article that this is a weak solution with no sparks of innovation. Xbox already has the Media Center app. They could easily add a TV tuner/DVR accessory and get rid of that cable box altogether. Cablecard may not be the most elegant technology but iut’s there, it’s a standard and the cable cos are required to support it by law. So with one little accessory, Xbox could become the media hub and DVR replacement for 60 million homes in the US.

    They could also do similar accessories for other markets where other tuner technology is used.

    Then Xbox owns the hub of entertainment in the home, owns the user experience and solves a huge consumer headache – the crappy cable box. BTW, you pay $200+ per year to lease those crappy boxes. Year after year, box after box..

  4. gonzo90017

    I agree with everything you said. I was hoping Microsoft would offer some type of cable service with smaller bundles but instead we get this?

    I really wish Sezmi were still around. If they had gone the IPTV route instead of the OTA route they probably still would be. Have been a cord cutter before and since. So This really doesn’t offer much.

  5. HAahahahhaaaahaha, change TV, boy that’s rich. I am a cord cutter and this couldnt be anymore obsolete out the gate than the current cable model.

    I dont consume content like that M$! This and the fiasco that is Microsoft 8 just confirms that you can no longer innovate or even copy well for that matter. It’s a damn shame!

  6. Kelly Dole

    I agree somewhat with Bob, except for the backstab part. Cable companies would like to escape as many of the operating and hard costs as possible associated with The Cable Box; unions wages, vans, schedules, service phone calls. If MS absorbs many of those, or even slows down how often they have to replace the box — that saves the cable company a lot of money. Win: Win.

  7. I agree with Janko. This is another Micro Shaft Failure of vision (H-1b’s?). Two virtual monopolies, known for their backwards thinking, and lack of responsiveness to the market, working together to give you a great user experience. And in complete control of your internetz over you T.V.! Where do I sign up!

  8. PS Vita Roundup

    Can you imagine the installation routine for your new NextBox?

    Click past the epilepsy warning.
    Setup Network….
    Enter name, DOB, etc
    Enter Xbox Live ID/Microsoft ID
    Enter password
    Agree to the user T&Cs
    Choose your cable provider….
    Enter your package details….
    Agree to these user T&Cs
    Enter your Nexflix/Lovefilm id
    Agree to these user T&Cs
    Enter your Spotify details…
    Agree to these user T&Cs
    Sort out a myriad of age-rating agreements/settings
    Confirm all that stuff multiple times
    That’s a lot of stuff for someone who just wants to play Halo 5.

  9. David Amodt

    Good info in the article but with the large number of cable set top boxes in existence and the number of cable company customers along with satellite customers, this is the best way to appease them and keep the deals that MSFT has with the providers.

  10. Cable companies don’t want to give up the cable box, they want to still be able to over charge for channels, sell VOD, etc.

    Instead of bypassing these companies, who were only infrastructure providers, we’re now in a situation where these companies own a lot of the content itself, which means we will never get rid of them

    Instead of other content providers being able to provide their channels over the internet, they are forced to comply with cable company demands. Even HBO, a premium subscription company, isn’t letting you buy their package if you don’t have it on your cable. ESPN is the same way,and there are others. You want to watch our channels online? you must have a Cable TV provider with the right channel package.

    Blaming Microsoft for not going further shows a lack of understanding. There’s a reason Apple still didn’t release their real TV solution, the one Jobs thought cracked the problem with TV consumption. Content provides who are either owned or enslaved by the cable companies won’t allow it. Until that changes, nothing will change.

  11. No one will “revolutionize” tv because the cable and media companies don’t want a revolution. Apple, Microsoft, Google, they have all tried and failed. This isn’t a problem of technology, it’s a problem of patents and government sanctioned monopolies.

    Cable companies like the position they are in; they do very little work and rake in tons of money.

    The only way to really fix this, I had to admit, is through government intervention. Governments created this pseudo monopolistic tv situation and only they can start the process of unwinding the damage.

  12. I think you’re missing the point. The reason why Microsoft is taking this approach is not because it lacks vision. It’s because it understands the concept of profitability via differentiation and needs not disrupt. So instead of giving the cable companies and head ends the middle finger, it throws them a bone.

    Necessity is the mother of invention as the proverb goes. Microsoft needs to protect and grow its existing living room position. It doesn’t need to disrupt to do so. I think it’s brilliant how they continue to win in major ways where it matters for the future.

    I don’t see what would buying Roku do for Microsoft. IF Google manages to turn their Fiber product into a significant anything, then you can make the statement that Microsoft or whoever dominates the living room at the time, needs to make a radical move such as buying or partnering to match that position. Do you see Google Fiber becoming a real threat within the next 5 to 10 years? I give it a “maybe” at best…

    No disruption needed here for Microsoft. They know how to play well with others. Google doesn’t.

  13. 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.

    • R. Chase Razabdouski

      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.

  14. 最终冰器红豆

    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.

  15. B Galarneau

    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.

    • 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.

  16. 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.

    • 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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,, 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.

  20. 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.



    • 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.