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Microsoft's Take on Interactive TV Could Finally Hit the Mark


A free app for the Xbox could change the face of television. Also: Dell's tablet is not dead yet.

The downside of Microsoft's (MSFT) latest product is that it's difficult to describe in a nutshell-, and that's always important to marketing types. Is it a souped-up Xbox game console? A replacement for your TV's cable box and remote control? A TV that listens when you speak, and responds to your gestures? The answer is "yes," and by the way, it's free.

The upgrade for the Xbox 360 with Kinect converts the game console into a universal remote control, with new voice control capabilities as well as the existing Kinect gesture controls, to run all home entertainment -- movies, TV, music, social media, games, sports events.

It replaces several devices, notably the clunky old TV remote control with its primitive "Page Up" and "Page Down" arrows for sorting through 1,000 channels.

Instead, you get a modern interface for television, one that's familiar to anyone who's ever used a cell phone, never mind a smartphone. You search programming using familiar Internet search engine functionality -- Microsoft's own Bing, of course, but stripped down to the essentials of entertainment programming.

Or, you can just speak up and tell it what you want. (Inevitably, this will lead to some comical translation errors, but after all, most people speak better than they type.)

Microsoft doesn't even know what to call this thing. It's just a "custom application" or a "free update" for the Xbox 360, for download on Xbox Live.

In fact, it re-casts the Xbox as something pretty close to that elusive "Internet TV" convergence we've been hearing about for years, while avoiding some of the pitfalls that have dogged Google (GOOG), Apple (AAPL), and the many other technology companies that have tried it.
That is:
  • No Rights Wars. Microsoft certainly had to negotiate partnerships with the companies who own entertainment content, or have rights to distribute it. But it was a pretty easy sell. Xbox users will access only the content they get through their subscriptions. If anything, it could boost their numbers, not undermine or replace them. Netflix (NFLX), HBO (TWX) and Comcast are among the initial partners, and Verizon FiOS is a "coming soon." None of the "Big 4" TV broadcast networks are partners, so initially the service is light on "streaming" programming.
  • No Learning Curve. Nobody who ever browsed the Internet or used a smartphone will have to learn how to use this. The "dashboard" looks and works like a smartphone screen, with bright boxy selections and tabs to content categories. In fact, it looks suspiciously like the preview version of Windows 8, which is not a coincidence.
  • An installed base. There are 57 million Xbox 360 consoles out there already, and about 35 million of them are connected to the Xbox Live service. It's a free app. What's not to like?
In Depth:
  • Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey is positive: "This is now the benchmark against which all other living-room initiatives should be compared, from cable or satellite set top boxes to Apple's widely rumored TV to the 3.0 version of Google TV that Google will have to start programming as soon as they see this."
  • Initial content partners, and those who are "coming soon," include a long list of entertainment brands. Glaring omissions include CBS (CBS), ABC (DIS), Fox (NWS), and NBC (GE), although MSNBC, which is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC, is in.

Web Weekly In Brief:

Dell Streak Only a Little Dead
Reports of the death of the Dell (DELL) Streak line of Google Android-powered tablet devices may have been exaggerated, but not greatly.

The Streak 7, the model with a 7-inch screen, has been removed from the Dell online site, or at least the U.S. version of it. A company press release subsequently referred to it in the past tense. Since that was the only Streak model on the site, many tech writers naturally concluded that Dell had surrendered its battle for a share of the tablet PC market.

Not so, the company says. There's a Streak 10, and it's available in China and some other markets. As for the Streak 7, it's just not available on the website, the company said, cryptically. At a guess, that may mean there are a few still in the stockrooms at Best Buy (BBY) stores.

Reading those tea leaves some more: Dell insists it remains "committed to the mobility market." That may mean it's writing off its attempt at an Android tablet line, while preparing for another attempt with Microsoft Windows for Mobile.

Le Morte d'Email

French technology giant Atos will ban internal email from its premises, on the grounds that it's a giant productivity killer. The company determined that employees get an average of 200 messages a day, and only 10% are useful. Instead, its 74,000 employees will begin using instant messaging or chat tools when they need to communicate with each other. It is not clear why the company thinks this will reduce the amount of trash talk in their workplace.
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