Three years after being unveiled at CES, Microsoft's Mediaroom software is finally coming to Xbox 360 (in the form of Mediaroom 2.0) "later this year" thanks to AT&T's U-verse service. But, that's all the details we had. Until today, when we spoke with Xbox's Aaron Greenberg as well as a Mediacenter spokesperson on the show floor who, between the two of them, managed to answer most of our questions.
First, we asked Greenberg to explain the three-year delay between the technology's 2007 debut and this announcement. "Well, the technology that we showed [in 2007] was brand new and showing that it worked," Greenberg said. "What we then did was we went out to the IPTV content providers and said, 'Hey, now this is an option for you.'" And that option was, of course, to use the Xbox 360 to deliver IPTV content. Greenberg said, "So the technology works ... the Xbox 360 can serve as a set-top box, be a DVR, and run Mediaroom." But not so fast! We got a tour of the service and found a few disappointing shortcomings to that nominally appealing feature-set.
"Mediaroom 2.0 does not record on or touch the HDD of the Xbox," we were told by Jeff Phillips, the Microsoft spokesperson who guided us through some of the service's features on the Xbox. That means the service's DVR features actually write to and read from another IPTV DVR running Mediaroom provided by your service provider (AT&T in this case) or a Windows 7 PC running Mediaroom. What if you skip the DVR functionality, and just want to use the Xbox 360 as a set-top box? "We're not there yet," Phillips admitted. The Xbox 360 serves as what they call a "whole home node," meaning it's simply an additional "node" for an existing IPTV setup. Think of how the Xbox 360 works as a Media Center extender.
Having the Xbox 360 as a standalone set-top box is obviously a very popular request, Phillips says. One of the examples he gave us was "dorm rooms" – the go-to setting for efficient living. As it stands, the Xbox 360 can get your household IPTV into the bedroom or the basement but only if you have an existing set-top box or DVR for it to piggyback on.
When asked if Mediacenter 2.0 would support Party Chat, ala SkyTV in the UK or Netflix, we were told no; however, the Xbox Guide is still accessible inside the Mediacenter 2.0 application (see image above), so it would be possible to be in an Xbox Live Party with someone watching the same channel on their U-verse service, or someone playing a DVD or a video game.
As disappointing as those limitations may be, most of us in the US will never experience them. With only 2 million subscribers as of last month, IPTV support is definitely a global strategy for Microsoft. "IPTV has, I think, had a lot more adoption outside the US than in the US," Greenberg told us. "You've got to think on a global scale – Europe, Asia, etc. – I know there are folks in Europe and Asia using Mediaroom and deplying that today. But on AT&T, you're right. In the US, while their footprint is small, I'm sure they would tell you that they have aggressive plans for growth and I would love to use it if I could, if they make it available in Seattle here." And that puts their global strategy into perspective – the Mediaroom IPTV platform isn't even available in Microsoft's own backyard but after three years, it may be available in some of yours.