Xbox Smart (gl)Ass.
No, Smart Glass isn’t the next generation, scratch-resistant material being used in the new iPhone. No, Smart Glass isn’t Microsoft’s answer to Google’s Alternate Reality Goggles. Instead, this serves as another way for MS to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.
For those who don’t care to follow gaming and computer news: Smart Glass is Microsoft’s solution for a connected and persistent entertainment environment. To be more specific, Smart Glass allows you to control Der Ecksbox (Xbox 360 and what will become the neXtbox) with your phone/tablet/computer screen. Announced at E3: 2012 they had quite a few hypotheticals to which this technology could be applied, ranging from app launching, aggregating metadata, shopping, turned based games, etc. That is all well and good. However, I only question the need for this service in a world full of alternatives.
Off the top I will quickly admit that I see what they are trying to do and totally give them credit for trying to reach out and control ecosystems where they have little to no presence. Any attempt to combine various activities that all orbit a single-ish activity is commendable. This might have been done out of necessity, but MS doesn’t always do something when necessary, insisting on what is more complicated (Zune ecosystem vs Plays for Sure). For them then to
grab at embrace iOS and Android allowing users encouraging them to opt-in and receive advanced-ish features previously reserved for Wintel interoperability is a curious turn indeed.
For me, this whole endeavor comes down to one fundamental comparison: Complementation vs. Supplementation. Does this service add to the Xbox and Xbox Live platforms or does it cover for deficiencies inherent in the current iteration of the service? I lean towards the latter specifically because the Xbox ecosystem is forced to balance more and more outside of its original design and I’ve been forced to deal with it.
That being said, I do conduct some of the very actions that are depicted in the keynote: I’ll hop over to IMDB to see who/what/when was in a movie or T.V. show, I will interact on social networks while engaged in a variety of multimedia experiences, etc. But, as I see it, having a unified system that dedicates an additional device to serve extra content for a single activity is a step in the wrong direction. Hypothetically, for me to use my iPhone to browse and launch a video that can be watched on Netflix via my Xbox or realistically just to launch a game, requires several network handshakes and a cumbersome/ineffective interface to achieve that one action. The problem is that this functionality is already available using the Xbox controller itself or even more simply, yelling at the unit with Kinect. Complaints and inconveniences like these can be changed with a software update or two but it’s 2012 and there is no reason that this is lacking that much finesse. Bottom line, features like these are really targeted towards pushing Windows 8.
To incorporate this at an OS level (Windows 8/Windows Phone) a lot of the barriers to task completion can be removed or mitigated. My qualms are that Microsoft is basically relying on customers to use ancillary products and services to accommodate this “feature” to cover holes in a single product. Behavior like this obviously parallels Apple and their vertical integration with iDevices/Tunes/Cloud/AirPlay and absolutely the ubiquity that Google services enjoy. The industry is migrating to a persistence based experience where all services know about all instances in which they are used. But even here we can see the two sides of this same coin where Apple largely answers this problem with hardware and some software and Google does so almost entirely using software. Where then does MS fit into this structure? They have multimedia hardware such as Xbox, the former Zune and their recently announced Surface soiree. They have software with Windows 8, Windows Phone, Zune Marketplace, Office and Skydrive. With that kind of breadth they seem to be struggling with the patchwork nature of product development and release making them unable to form a coherent corporate direction accommodating every aspect.
Strictly from an entertainment standpoint I don’t require one device being dedicated to supplement another be it information, service or otherwise. I enjoy Netflix across a range of devices where their service tracks and maintains preferences and progress. iTunes and Spotify each remember what songs and artists I enjoy and I can trust them to at least not mess up playing songs. My ability to socialize does not require a 40″ screen to show me friends’ drunken photos or what is currently trending. Again, I question what benefit I would receive where independent devices can’t achieve the same results faster while remaining outside of this whole debacle.
Ultimately I think this is too little, too late for Microsoft. They are doing a decent job pissing off their hardware manufacturers so that they can deliver their services and they are directly competing with services that some of their hardware relies on that customers already use (primarily audio and video delivery). Integration is a great thing and there are absolutely excellent ways to go about that on current and up-coming properties (neXtbox/neXtbox LIVE, Windows 8 and so on) but I think MS is trying too hard to unseat the established heavy-hitters like Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, YouTube. The execution is what is lacking where they are heading towards a “One device, one task” mentality which follows their “Three Screen” approach. This effectively combats a what’s-the-least-this-will-take-to-achieve, resource-limited direction to try to solve a problem where it originally develops.
I continue to struggle with this because they fully understand interactive TV and alternate ways to interact (Kinect/Kinect for Windows). Then instead of innovating outside of just throwing more screens into the mix, why not do more with the one and often times bigger screen that people are using? With methods like the Xbox guide, a persistent and always accessible overlay that can be invoked at the push of a button, why not do more in that space? Have it be a crawl at the bottom of the screen a-la news broadcasts? I’LL EVEN CREATE CRAPPY MOCK-UPS AND DRIVE THEM TO REDMOND MYSELF.