What's in a name? A whole lot, if you're asking yours truly. "All Your Entertainment. Input One." Such intriguing statements were declared in a document that leaked from Redmond last summer. The slogan "All in one, input one" was on the Microsoft banners decorating the LA Convention Center for E3 this year. But this probably left many wondering: what is "input one," exactly? It didn't go unnoticed by those who follow the TV industry. Input one is commonly used in the biz to refer to the TV input most Americans use to access the majority of their content. This is the input that's displayed when the TV is turned on, and it's the input that most connect their set-top box from their cable or satellite provider to. Naturally, it's a highly coveted position in the content industry and one that is well fortified by the incumbents.
Microsoft has had its sights on input one for a long time, and this particular go-round isn't all that unfamiliar. The Xbox One intends to share input one in what I'd call a man-in-the-middle attack. How well it works won't be revealed until later this year, but clicking through will reveal how I think it'll play out, why this attempt is a direct result of industry constraints and finally, how it matches up with the competition.
Microsoft's long road to input one
I'd say Microsoft's serious interest in the living room began when it acquired WebTV in 1997. This was followed by years of MSN TV retail set-top boxes, as well as partnerships with Dish Network (Dishplayer) and DirecTV (UltimateTV). The idea was that you could access web content on your TV, alongside the video content. Back then, there was no hope of delivering video via 56k modems -- this was more about bringing the internet to your television. The system worked by connecting to your TV provider's set-top box, and then connecting it all to your TV. Essentially, it was daisy chained, just like a VCR. An IR blaster was used to change channels and offer some level of integration between MSN TV and your provider's box. This really never caught on with the masses, but Microsoft did continue to work with hardware partners to market the boxes for nearly 10 years and the MSN TV web page is still up... but I've no clue if there are any boxes left in use.
Dishplayer and UltimateTV were a little different. The idea of bringing the internet to your TV was the same, but these implementations were actually DVRs with WebTV integrated into the box. Both had a limited run, with Dish releasing its own DVR after discontinuing the Dishplayer and suing Microsoft for support issues in 2001. DirecTV stopped distributing the UltimateTV in 2003, offering TiVo instead. Microsoft didn't give up on partnering with content providers, though. Its Foundation Edition, IPTV Edition and finally Mediaroom lived on for years behind the scenes with providers like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T -- as well as a number of others outside of the US. The company's role as a technology provider to the traditional multi-channel TV service industry pretty much ended a few months ago with the sale of Mediaroom to Ericsson.
My favorite of Microsoft's attempts to own the living room was released in the summer of 2002. Unlike WebTV, Windows Media Center was designed to be the source. It was more about content than about bringing the web to the TV. By the time the final version landed on Windows 7, in the fall of 2009, it had become arguably the best DVR experience available anywhere. Not only was it a DVR, but it would also manage your photos and music and make them all easily accessible on your TV. As we all know, being the best doesn't always translate into market success, and no matter how much time and effort Microsoft put into Media Center, it wasn't enough to achieve a meaningful share of the market. Technically Media Center isn't dead, as the same version that shipped with Windows 7 is available as an add-on for Windows 8. But all indications are that Microsoft has stopped further development.
The Xbox One strategy to take over input one
The DVR has always been a stop-gap technology while we wait for everything to be available on demand.
And so with years of experience in the TV industry, including partnerships with content providers and working with industry standards like CableCARD, we have the Xbox One. The DVR has always been a stop-gap technology while we wait for everything to be available on demand (or in the cloud, at least). So, of course, I'm not surprised that Microsoft is looking forward and turning the corner on the DVR. What I mean is that the Xbox One is not a DVR, and I don't expect it to integrate tightly with third-party DVRs. Sure, it'll control any provider's set-top box, but this is about live TV.
This might sound ill advised, but according to Nielsen, the lion's share of TV is still viewed live, with DVR usage paling in comparison. So the idea isn't to replace your provider's DVR or even to do much more than to use it as a source for live TV. There has been no indication from Microsoft that the Xbox One will be able to search the recordings on your DVR or even schedule them. You'll still be able to use the DVR features, but my bet is that you'll have to resort to using its remote to watch recordings, rather than using the Xbox One to control it.
What the Xbox One will do is overlay Microsoft's OneGuide on top of live TV delivered from your provider's set-top box. It does this with its HDMI input / output and an IR output. You'll connect your provider's set-top box to the Xbox One via HDMI, then connect it to your TV. Finally, you'll attach the IR emitter to your provider's box. IR might be old and slow, but it's the only truly universal control protocol with a decent penetration in the living room. In reality, IR works well at what it does. Speed and reliability aren't the biggest issues here, either; the problem is the one-way nature of the protocol. Since it's designed for simple remote controls, it just doesn't do very much. It's limited to what's possible with a handheld remote, but without the benefit of having eyes to know what context-sensitive controls will do -- the power button does something different depending on if the TV is currently on or off, for example.
The Xbox One does support HDMI-CEC, but despite my quiet pleas, this control protocol hasn't been implemented into a single one of the boxes that can access tons of premium content. This includes the latest X1 from Comcast and the latest TiVo Premiere. The reason for including CEC in the Xbox One is to control the TV and the AV receiver. Without it, walking into your house and saying "Xbox On" wouldn't turn those devices on. Sure, Microsoft could use IR for this as well, but unlike most set-top boxes, every decent TV and AVR sold in the past five or so years supports CEC. How extensively the Xbox One will leverage it is unknown, but anything short of power, input and volume control of your home theater would leave me disappointed. CEC is very useful, but the standard command set isn't enough to schedule recordings or pass metadata. It is extensible, though, but this would require third parties to not only support CEC, but to also support Microsoft's expanded command set.
The way the Xbox One will take over input one on your TV is by offering all the most popular programming. According to Nielsen, live TV; Netflix; Blu-ray / DVD and, of course, games fill the screen for the majority of the time your TV is on. The key to getting you to pipe your live TV through another box is to enhance that experience. I bet that, for most users, voice-activated controls or Kinect gestures aren't going to be enough to do it. An enhanced program guide that brings together all the sources of content into one screen -- now that has potential.
Add in some data from the internet in the form of socially curated shows, sports scores and additional information about what you're watching from sources like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, and things really begin to gel. I'd argue that alone has the potential to provide the best mix of live TV and online streaming that has ever been available, but that could also be said of competitors' offerings. The thing that makes this really interesting is having all of this in one box.
But why does it have to be this way?
The geek inside of me can't understand why we are still using IR blasters and video overlays in 2013. Frankly, it's disappointing that live TV on the Xbox One works essentially the same way it did on the WebTV when it launched in the late '90s. But what other choice does Microsoft have? The folks in Redmond have tried partnering with premium-content providers as well as participating in creating standards like CableCARD in the past, and none of it resulted in what most would call a success.
Consumer choice is limited and the titans of technology have little opportunity to make a meaningful change, unless they are willing to run their own lines.
The reality is that cable and satellite providers such as Comcast, DirecTV and Verizon worked hard to be the centers of attention in your living room and have little to gain by letting anyone else join in. They've dragged their feet on agreeing to industry standards to enable third-party boxes to access their content. (CableCARD was released 10 years after the law that required it passed, and its replacement wasn't delivered by the December 2012 deadline.) They've also proven inept at supporting the standards that do exist, and have built IP control protocols for their own mobile apps without providing them publicly. Tough to blame 'em given the game they're playing, but I won't pretend to like it.
The fight for the control of input one is a way to differentiate a content provider from its competitors. It's a way to ensure that the TV service providers don't just become internet service providers -- a commodity racing to zero, like the long-distance telephone providers of the last decade. This sometimes means that consumers are forced to choose which user interface they want to see on their screen when they choose a neighborhood. And while Verizon offers at least 25 different smartphones, it only offers one DVR to its FiOS TV customers. In other words, consumer choice is limited and the titans of technology have little opportunity to make a meaningful change, unless they are willing to run their own lines.
There is another way, though. While it seems unlikely, it is possible that Microsoft might once again partner with premium-content providers. Somehow, the company got Comcast to bring Xfinity On Demand content to the Xbox 360 and Verizon to stream 75 of its most popular cable networks live. I did reach out to the top five providers in the US and Microsoft, but as of publication time, none were ready to announce any cooperation in regards to OneGuide for Xbox One.
The first box that came to mind when I learned of OneGuide was Google TV. Bringing video overlays and IR blasters back from the grave was just as well received when Google announced it at the Google TV launch event. The key difference here is that the Xbox One doesn't come with a keyboard. It also has Kinect for voice and gesture control, or SmartGlass for second-screen interaction. Of course, it also looks to be a killer gaming console.
Other than Google TV, no one else in recent memory has attempted a man-in-the-middle attack on input one. So, while the Apple TV has a fairly impressive iTunes ecosystem thing going, and the Roku has more channels (apps) than anyone, the Xbox One is the only device that is trying to do it all, premium live TV included.
Now we wait
Sure, the Xbox One won't completely replace your provider's set-top box, nor the remote that came with it, but it does have the potential to change the way we consume content. The promise of offering almost everything that people use their TV for from a single user interface while enhancing the experience by leveraging the power of the internet, the latest in voice and gesture control and a second-screen interface (that transcends a single mobile platform) is certainly something to look forward to. I'm hopeful that the Xbox One is one step closer to the future of TV, but it's by no means enough to live up to my expectations of where I thought TV would be today. I have little doubt that gamers who pick up an Xbox One will connect it to input one. The question is: will OneGuide enhance the live TV experience enough so people will actually use it and, even perhaps more importantly, enough to push additional sales of the Xbox One to those who aren't hardcore gamers?