- The forthcoming Xbox One is designed to be the hub for all your living room entertainment
- Switch between a game, Blu-Ray movie or live cable TV without a remote control
- But Microsoft has hit the same roadblocks as Google and Apple when it comes to changing TV
- The challenge is convincing major cable companies to ditch their set-top boxes
Microsoft's new video game console, the Xbox One, made its long-awaited debut last month. The real story here isn't about video games, though.
A lot has changed in the seven years since the current Xbox 360 launched. Gaming on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets has exploded while traditional console gaming remains relatively stagnant. The challenge for any new video game console is to make it more than just a fancy computer that reads game discs.
So how does the Xbox One try to differentiate itself?
The Xbox One is designed to be the hub for all your living room entertainment, not just games. It can plug into your cable box and pipe live TV through your console using an HDMI cable, meaning you won't have to switch inputs.
Instead of seeing your cable company's clunky on-screen menu system, you get a new guide designed by Microsoft that can can recommend shows and let you change the channel using your voice.
Microsoft's demos of TV on the Xbox One were pretty impressive, too. You can seamlessly and instantaneously switch between a game, Blu-Ray movie or live cable TV without fiddling with a remote control. Just say out loud what you want to watch, and the Xbox will do the rest. There are also a few content deals with ESPN and the NFL that let you manage your fantasy sports teams while watching games live.
Pretty cool, right?
Unfortunately, the Xbox One won't work like magic for everyone, and it's pretty clear that Microsoft has hit the same roadblocks Google, Apple and others have when it comes to revolutionizing the way we watch TV.
There are a lot of cable TV features the Xbox One won't be able to re-create, at least at first. You won't be able to watch on-demand shows. You won't be able to record shows to the Xbox's hard drive.
And it can directly integrate with your cable box only if you have a newer model with an HDMI cable, meaning many people will have to use an old-fashioned infrared sensor instead.
You're still limited to watching whatever happens to be on live TV, which, unfortunately for Microsoft, isn't the only way people watch TV anymore.
We've been through this before.
Two years ago, Google introduced Google TV, which also adds a Web-powered layer on top of cable. It was an interesting concept but one that has still failed to take off with the public. The service still relies on a regular cable box, and at its core, it's just another fancy interface that tries to improve your regular on-screen menu.
Now for some good news. Microsoft still has the option to improve the Xbox One's TV features through software updates. After the console's announcement last week, Xbox hardware boss Todd Holmdahl told me it would be possible to allow the Xbox One to act as a DVR in a future update, just like other third-party DVRs such as TiVo.
In the end, though, the Xbox One, or any other video game console or streaming box like Roku or Apple TV, won't be able to truly change TV until it can clear a huge obstacle: persuading major cable companies to ditch their set-top boxes and use theirs instead.