Editorial: The most exciting Xbox SmartGlass application isn't what you'd think

In Microsoft's ongoing battle to alter your association between "Xbox" and "Video Games," SmartGlass is its latest volley. Employing your favorite mobile device -- Windows Phone 7.5/8, Android, and iOS devices are all supported -- SmartGlass enables you to control your Dashboard experience, explore the web, input text, and much more. But what Microsoft's really banking on is its "second screen" functionality, essentially enabling another layer of interactivity with video, music, games, and the Xbox 360's other, less ballyhooed service: sports.

It's this final layer that I found most enticing during a recent hands-on meeting with Microsoft. Could sports be the "killer app" that MS needs to get SmartGlass out of its tiny niche and into the hands of the masses? I think so.

Every Sunday during football season, the day's big game cuts into CBS' 7PM showing of 60 Minutes. I know this because it frustrates me every week. Why am I pointing this out? To illustrate my total lack of interest in sports. The closest I get to watching them is a cursory glance at the US Open and the occasional Olympics. Yet, regardless of this fact, when Microsoft general manager Ron Pessner flipped on the NBA Game Time application and walked me through it, the implications were expansive and implicit.

First and foremost, know that Pessner and co. are looking at Game Time as one of SmartGlass' "horizontal experiences" -- an example for what to expect from similar apps (such as the forthcoming UFC, MLB, and NHL iterations). This is a very good thing, as NBA Game Time expertly integrates live games, real-time statistics, and your friends list into a social mélange of wizardry. Where this all comes together is in the "Sports Picker," which allows you to guess outcomes to games across a variety of sports via SmartGlass; those choices then reflect in an ongoing leaderboard against Xbox Live friends. The functionality isn't all that incredible on its own, but when paired with a wealth of stats and live games, it's easy to see how interactivity like this could reshape how fans consume sports.

The most exciting SmartGlass application isn't what you'd think

Additionally, the system has a built-in tracker for following up to five teams -- when the idea of a fantasy team builder comes up, Pessner says, "I'm not allowed to talk about roadmap-related things, but you could imagine ..." He begins laughing mid-response. "You could imagine that." Xbox Music GM Jerry Johnson is more politically-minded in his response. "The beauty of this is it's a platform for content developers. So everything we can imagine, there's already people working on it, first-party and third-party." The question of when, of course, is another entirely. The aforementioned UFC, MLB, and NHL apps will join NBA Game Time "in the coming months" -- Pessner and Johnson both referred to the apps as coming in the holidays, so presumably we'll see them join the sports hub by the end of 2013.

Of all the SmartGlass apps I saw in action last week -- nigh identical with what we saw at E3 back in June -- few demonstrated the sheer mainstream appeal that the NBA Game Time app did. Being able to control the 360 via touchscreen is convenient, but already existed in the My Xbox Live companion app (to an extent). The added functionality to Xbox Video and Music selections is neat, but isn't complimentary enough to be of much use. But Pessner's right when he says that many sports fans are already watching games with a laptop or similar device enabling second screen interaction -- Game Time simply repackages that already existing phenomenon into an easy to use interactive hub. If anything's going to redefine "Xbox" in the minds of consumers from a video game box into an "entertainment hub," it's SmartGlass' sports applications.