The reaction to the Xbox One seems to have been mixed. Looking at this video, I’ve gotten some idea of what seems to rile people up.
I was talking about this with my buddy Jesterspawn who offered his personal theory: the Xbox One is not offering a product to its audience. Instead, the audience it brings is the product. The best way to think of this is to look at television. NBC is not really trying to deliver content to a viewing audience. What NBC is really concerned about is delivering the viewing audience to advertisers which is how they make their money. In similar fashion, Microsoft is looking to use the Xbox One to deliver people to Netflix, the NFL sports network, HBO, and whatever other sources of media it can partner with. Microsoft can then start data mining users to find out TV and movie watching habits, internet surfing habits, game playing habits and so on. Live in-game advertising is probably not far away.
This isn’t a totally novel idea. When you put things this way, the Xbox One actually looks like a competitor not to the PS4 but to Google TV. Google TV is also a system which overlays graphics and information on top of live TV coming through your cable box, satellite dish, or whatever. The main edge of the Xbox One is its interface which combines Kinect with voice controls to switch seamlessly between movies, TV, music, internet, and other media. I’m not sure how much of a selling point that is, to be honest. I can’t say I’ve ever watched a show on TV and thought to myself, “Boy I wish I could switch instantaneously to internet surfing right now.”
Actually, when I do get that urge, I just pick up my iPad.
Which brings us to the central issue with set top boxes like the Xbox One. Every media and electronic corporation wants to sell you one. But there isn’t much evidence that we really want them. Put simply, people have shown that they are perfectly willing to have a videogame console, a Blu-Ray player, and a web browser in separate machines. It’s just not that inconvenient to have multiple machines doing one thing well, and it also avoids giving us features that we don’t need. For example, I am not going to watch TV through the Xbox One because I don’t have cable. I download or stream everything. The smart TV feature on the Xbox One is wasted money for me.
The other issue is that the Xbox One and Google TV are both heavily reliant on underlying infrastructure built by Microsoft or Google. And neither company has the best setup for everything. When it comes to web browsing, I vastly prefer Chrome to Internet Explorer. But if I have an Xbox One, I’m out of luck. If I want to play videogames, I’ll have to use the Xbox One. Google TV has no videogames other than browser-based ones. If I have to find information on the internet, you can be sure that the Xbox One is going to force you to use Bing. Let that sink in for a second.
And that’s just in North America. Netflix streaming on the Xbox One is going to be useless in Asia or many European countries. NFL Sports? Do I even need to point out how little the rest of the world will care about that? Microsoft will have to negotiate deals with media companies all over the world if it hopes to compete on the international stage, and all those separate arrangements are going to be time consuming and fragmented. Meanwhile, many TVs are already coming with built in internet streaming these days.
Microsoft certainly seems to have been smarter about the feature set for the Xbox One than Sony was for the PS3. This may be the closest thing to a set top box we’ll get today, at least in North America. But I can’t shake the feeling that the very concept of a set top box still isn’t all that compelling to consumers.