Xbox evolved: Microsoft's master-plan to merge all media

How the 360 manufacturer is threading together SmartGlass, Xbox Music, Windows 8 and more

There is a sense, if one stops to examine it, that a most significant transformation of the Xbox is happening right under our noses.

Numerous incremental updates, drip-fed across several years, have quietly and steadily re-shaped the console into a home entertainment hub. At face value it's bluntly referred to as "games plus Netflix" in the US and "games plus iPlayer" in the UK. Yet, at an infrastructure level, Microsoft is pushing Xbox into a sphere of entertainment that's so progressive there isn't really a recognised word for it yet.

It's not convergence nor is it dissemination. The future for Xbox is some kind of multi-channel, cross-location, self-interacting media ecosystem. And it's something that has clear signs of promise.

Xbox Music

Put it this way: Xbox will soon launch a music service that most people expect will carry the same curse/stupidities as Zune. Yet somehow it is clearly an authentic Spotify contender.

Xbox Music will cost £8.99 in the UK - about the same price as Spotify's premium service - and it will allow customers to stream ad-free music onto five separate devices such as Windows 8, smartphones, various tablets, Xboxes and PCs.

A Windows Phone user, for example, will be able to listen on the go and then, when arriving home or at the office, can throw their playlist onto an Xbox or PC, or whatever really, in a manner that isn't quite seamless but is swift and straightforward.

When Xbox Music is playing on PC or Xbox, a SmartGlass device can sync up and provide information about the tracks, or allow users to create playlists to send across devices.

Everything's becoming a bit post-homogenous. The target customer in Microsoft's future will not easily perceive where their entertainment experience begins or ends.

And in a moment of modern shrewdness, Microsoft has revealed that the basic version of Xbox Music will be completely free to use.

Pawan Bhardwaj, product manager Xbox Live, confirmed to CVG on Monday that the free edition will be punctuated by commercial interruptions much like Spotify's free service. Unlike Spotify, however, it will support SmartGlass and boast about double the number of available tracks (about thirty million, apparently).

SmartGlass is coming to iPhone and Android for free too, though it's not clear whether the likes of Apple and Google will allow their devices to stream a major rival's music service.

Microsoft has a startling track record of misusing its resources and misunderstanding the market when trying to compete in music. By opening up Xbox Music to all (and, by the way, pre-installing it on all Windows 8 OSes), it may well have steadied its aim.

SmartGlass will transfer video across devices

Video vision

Tablets and mobiles, via SmartGlass, will soon become a second-screen accessory for all Netflix films. This service has less potential; essentially it's a slick version of IMDB updating throughout a film to offer info on actors and such. Whether users will really want to break the spell of There Will Be Blood to read about Daniel Day-Lewis's acting career is up for debate.

It hasn't gone unnoticed that second-screen TV interaction has become more customary on media that doesn't demand such undivided attention. Documentaries, special news reports and debate shows such as Question Time is really what gets people on their tablet posturing away on Twitter.

CVG asked Bhardwaj whether such SmartGlass functionality will be available for live television, and detailed the potential of watching a Super Sunday match on Sky Sports while being fed squad stats and a live premier league table through a tablet. He said he couldn't quite answer that question but asked us to watch out for any announcements made in the US soon. So it looks like the NFL will get there first.

He also pointed out that the Presidential election debate was streamed over Xbox Live, which about 100,000 people watched, and also hosted a live poll that thousands took part in.

The Windows 8 Xbox 'entertainment' store

Cross-play, cross-buy and Windows 8

Microsoft is poised to announce SmartGlass partnerships with a select number of third-party games publishers, Bhardwaj told CVG.

Gaming is still the pulse of the Xbox business, and understandably Bhardwaj was a little more careful when discussing his core audience.

"We really want to offer an enhanced experience for people playing games on Xbox," he said.

"We don't want to distract from it, we want to add to it. It has to be a genuine accompaniment, so we're looking at games that will be enhanced and not hindered by second-screen tech."

Two examples were offered: the next Just Dance on Xbox will allow people to update playlists on the fly, and on Forza Horizon owners will be shown an interactive map. Hardly earth-shattering, but Bhardwaj believes the potential is there, particularly for any game that requires excessive use of maps (GTA V springs to mind) or various data logs and lore (Mass Effect et al).

While Microsoft is outright prohibiting 18-rated content on the Windows 8 app store, on the Xbox Games Store nothing is restricted. PC users can buy Xbox content at their desk which will commence download once the home console is switched on.

With regards to PC-console matrimony, Sony is perhaps going one step beyond Microsoft. The PS3 game Dust 514, for example, will directly interact with the PC-bound Eve Online audience in a real-time environment. Since Microsoft is so openly embracing homogeneity, CVG asked Bhardwaj whether games would be able to dance between Windows 8 and Xbox. He said he wasn't certain.


Xbox next

It was in June last year that Microsoft laid bare its new strategy for Xbox. Corporate communications VP Frank Shaw wrote in a widely circulated blog post that the console would be marketed more as an entertainment brand, though at the time it was hard to tell if this was executive-level hyperbole.

In hindsight, it's clear that Shaw and his colleagues were determined to adapt to the modern traits of the market. Though it has moved as slowly as any company would at that size, Microsoft has nevertheless demonstrated a clear vision for its future in entertainment.

What is quite striking about Xbox is the way it is now used as an umbrella-term for music, film, TV and games - a clear sign of confidence from Microsoft that the brand has successfully purveyed the mass market.

The Windows 8 media section itself is categorised as Xbox, and it's decisions like this that portray quite an extraordinary success story for gaming brand barely older than ten years. What started as a console codename has encompassed nearly everything Microsoft wants to package as entertainment.

With one question remaining, CVG asked Bhardwaj whether he was worried that, by surrounding Xbox gamers with all these distractions, the focus on gaming itself could get lost.

"I think we reached an understanding that our customers, gamers, also love movies, they love music," he said.

"They're normal people who have lives and love entertainment. We're there to give them what we want."