Bloomberg wrote up some thoughts on where it looks like the new Microsoft Xbox TV initiative is headed and I have to admit, I like what it looks like. Basically, it could position the Xbox 360 as the single piece of tech you need for all your video-based entertainment needs: gaming, DVD, cable TV. Well, except for Blu-Ray and 3D I suppose.

Hardware Convergence

If you’re like me, you love your tech, have a lot of it and could use some combination of pieces of gear. In fact, the image below is my actual rig right now. It’s a horrible mess of cables, consoles a set top box for cable, an A/V receiver and an HDMI switch (all of which ties to the projector and satellite speakers). So cutting down a couple pieces would be great. Note, in my stack there are actually three Xbox 360s, because one is a developer test-kit, one is an EU unit and the third is the US unit. Also, there’s just one PS3 because when using HDMI, I can play Blu-Ray from any region. Points for Sony on that and for 3D capabilities, which I don’t use much but sometimes need. (Yes, there’s a second PS3 there, but it’s also from Europe and I just haven’t switched from the 120GB to the 160GB yet).

A Microsoft-Centered Entertainment Experience

I recently reported that Microsoft was talking with some cable providers to integrate the Xbox 360 into the system as a set top box and DVR. Specifically they spoke about AT&T U-Verse (which I won’t ever use) which was a disappointment. But now, several other companies have now been named to be in discussions which would drastically change the face of how gamers get their television.

Bloomberg specifically named Verizon and Comcast as new partners that Microsoft is talking with to tie the console into the online pay TV arena. A deal of note that is expected is with HBO. Why? First, they are notoriously difficult to get access to online. The HBO Go service requires a subscription to HBO which I think is silly. If this were to work, and unbundle pay TV subscriptions and online streaming, it could be a domino effect in the industry. I would love to have HBO Go but don’t want to pay the cable company for HBO just to get it. I would however pay to just get HBO on demand online streaming. Why?

I don’t have a DVR cable box and I am not going to structure my time around when they decide to air a show. With HBO Go I could watch what I want when I want. So why should I pay for the channel on cable when I pretty much will never use it? Price HBO Go accordingly, and I’ll pay for a couple months a year to catch up on everything I want to watch. The same goes for Showtime and some others. In a recent Time Warner Cable survey when they asked for my opinion on what they could do better, I told them to unpack their channel packages and go more a la carte. If I can pick and choose my channels, instead of having 100 that I will never use foisted upon me, my TV experience would be better because I could channel surf more readily. Another thing they need to do is give users the ability to remove channels they don’t have from the EPG. This is why on-demand services are so appealing. Get to the content faster, watch it when you want and only really see what you want to see.

Other content providers that Microsoft is said to be in talks with include, ironically, Sony Pictures Crackle, NBCU’s Bravo and SyFy, and Amazon’s LoveFilm UK.

Say & See

As if taking a cue from the old See & Say children’s toys, Microsoft now has a Say and See mentality. Last night, after some work and sports I had an hour or two free. Since my Xbox 360 was already on, I simply said, “Xbox Hulu Plus” and boom, I was in my Hulu Plus account. It’s not fully integrated just yet and leaving the first menu requires you to have a controller handy. But it’s very cool as you can say “Xbox play video one” and it plays the video. Is that not cool?!

They are hoping to bring more of this to the Xbox dashboard and video services in the very near future with a new update to the dashboard software and I say, bring it! No remote, no controller is great and so intuitive. I can’t wait for Bing voice so I can do things like check news etc without having to pick up a controller. It would be great if it could also read the news so I could multitask.

Game (TV, film, streaming) on!

The great thing about this deal is that we’ll have one box to play games, watch regular TV (whether DVR’d on-demand or live) and get streaming video from Hulu, etc. For those of us who haven’t got a connected Blu-Ray or TV this could be an ideal situation if you don’t want to upgrade to a new TV. The added bonus over a device like Roku, Boxee, Google and Apple TV is that it’s an all in one solution. Granted there’s no real web browsing on the Xbox 360, but hopefully with Bing voice search that won’t be far behind. I am also eager to see what kind of social TV options there will be. The Xbox 360 already has some social networking connectivity but it’s quite limited. With speech-to-text capabilities it could really be expanded so that when you’re watching that season premier or new streaming blockbuster you can just say “Xbox Facebook status update” and then speak your update without ever leaving the program (which would of course automatically pause until you were ready to watch again).

Then again, if it’s not priced properly it will just be another overpriced, underpowered feeble attempt by the broadcasters to maintain the status quo. Microsoft needs to help them unbundle all those channels we don’t want and find new ways to keep subscribers while giving non-subs a reason to consider it. Perhaps some ten and twenty-channel a la carte package ideas would work where we can pick and choose from lists of channels for a set price. I’m quite happy that I’ve got Hulu Plus on the Xbox already as I can switch from gaming to video without having to touch a remote or even switch inputs on the Optoma GameTime 750 DLP projector (product placement!). There are a couple other streaming services (Netflix, ESPN, Zune, ) there as well but I just don’t use. Well actually, I just started checking out the ESPN thing because you can customize to only get the news for the teams and leagues you want which is cool.

The real shortcoming with all of this on the Xbox 360 is that each service has its own payment scheme. Zune is per content piece, Hulu and Netflix are subscription-based, etc. What I want is, like cable, a single payment for what I want. It’s difficult I know, but Microsoft needs to expand the streaming offerings on the platform including the content and then find ways to bundle for a subscription price, which I think they are trying to do with their expected Platinum level Xbox LIVE account. I for one would be on board for something like that because the recent price hike for Gold to $60 a month year (typo) is starting to make it seem like it’s a waste of money since it really only allows for online gaming and little else.