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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 They’re hard to use, outdated pieces of technology.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.