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Switched On: One box to rule them all


Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

When Microsoft introduced the original Xbox, the company had a lot to prove. The console newcomer promised that it was laser-focused on building a great system for games. There wasn't much to distract it. In a time of DVDs and dial-up, "convergence" in the space was focused on the ability for consoles to play back movies rented at Blockbuster.

But everyone knew that the new kid on the box had an agenda beyond taking its share of industry profits away from Nintendo and Sony. Particularly versus the latter, Microsoft knew it would be engaged in a war for the living room and the future of digital entertainment distribution including, but beyond games. Nothing came close to matching the processing power that consoles had brought to the living room, but no one had really cracked the broader application beyond disc-based games. It surely wasn't web browsing, as Nintendo and Sony had tried. Still, as streaming services from Netflix, Hulu, Pandora and others began to proliferate across lots of different add-on boxes, it made sense to add them onto Xbox Live (even if the programming wasn't) as well as the PlayStation Network.

Xbox One is charging into the living room with the ferocity of one of its exquisitely rendered Call of Duty: Ghosts soldiers.

However, the spreading of the Zune brand's ashes and the sale of the pay TV, vendor-focused MediaRoom division to Ericsson were the final precursors to the end of the hidden agenda's secrecy. Xbox One is charging into the living room with the ferocity of one of its exquisitely rendered Call of Duty: Ghosts soldiers. Mere streaming boxes may be prepared to carry live streams of broadcasters. However, not only will the Xbox One incorporate the pay TV services consumers are already paying for, but it will also allow them to navigate those services by voice, switch between them and other Xbox apps for music and web browsing and even interact with them in some cases. And the Xbox One won't just be a passive pipe for the TV already available; Microsoft will begin to develop its own programming as Netflix and Amazon have done.

Mere control of the TV stream is hardly a recipe for success for non-cable products. Years before the Logitech Revue failed to marry broadband and broadcast came TiVo. WebTV tried the same with WebTV Plus. However, while high-budget game titles may not have universal appeal, they have been desirable enough Trojan horses to bring the Xbox and its major competitors into about a third of US homes. Before Blu-ray players, DVRs and even the Betamax, there were game consoles. With the opportunity for personalized programming and natural navigation, that tail is now poised to wag the dog.

The Nintendo Wii U, the first of this generation of consoles to launch, made its bid for TV control and overlay with its TVii feature. Nintendo TVii relies on TiVo for the capabilities of a DVR, a domain in which Microsoft has many years of experience with its long-underutilized, but well-regarded Windows Media Center. Microsoft at least played to those capabilities by mentioning recorded programming at its Xbox Reveal event, and we know that the Xbox One can both record gameplay (and send it to the cloud like the PlayStation 4), as well as accept external USB 3.0 hard drives.

Switched On One box to rule them all

Microsoft will actually have another opportunity to serve as it makes its E3 announcement a few hours before the ball lands in the court of Sony, which has previously offered TV viewing and recording capability with PlayTV in Europe. With a richer living room legacy than either of its main competitors, Sony will be under the gun to show that it has not abandoned its heart in the living room as it has turned its head toward the cloud.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.

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