Microsoft Gives the Xbox Experience an Extreme Makeover

Xbox Live customers are receiving an update this week that is part of Microsoft's plan to turn their widely-selling gaming console into an all-in-one entertainment system. This includes improvements to the pre-existing array of entertainment options accessible via the Xbox 360, among them Netflix streaming, ESPN programming and events, Hulu, and select MSNBC news videos. On top of these improvements, Microsoft will also be integrating a Bing search engine into the Xbox Live interface as well as including a Siri-like voice control system for search. Added partnerships and agreements with other entertainment entities expected to be announced include a deal with Google to feature a Youtube channel, and an arrangement with Time Warner to get an HBO channel put onto Xbox Live as well.

Many of these features represent Microsoft's attempt to play catch up as much as they convey the company's desire to be once again associated with technological evolution. For instance, Xbox Live subscribers would be much more impressed with the new ability to perform a reverse phone lookup via web search if users of the Playstation 3 hadn't already had this luxury for years. The inclusion of voice-recognition to drive searches on the Xbox 360 is itself a race against time to beat Apple at their own game; it won't be long before a Siri-powered Apple “smart” TV is on store shelves. Microsoft sees the writing on the wall and is determined not to be left behind.

Questions remain as to which of these new perks will be included with the Xbox Live Gold subscription, and which will demand additional payment. For instance Netflix through Xbox 360 is an additional subscription you have to pay for, while watching a multitude of sporting events via ESPN or scanning the daily news through MSNBC remain complementary. Nobody needs to be getting excited over the prospect of having HBO for free thanks to Microsoft wheeling and dealing, as such a premier movie package is certain to cost more money than the company's willing to surrender as an investment.

The one and only gripe that can be definitively declared is the fact that this newfangled voice-recognition search capability is only available through the Kinect – the add-on for Xbox 360 players to participate in motion and sound activated gaming. Why can't users simply use their microphones? The easy answer is probably because most gamer microphones that are plugged into the controller are too low-quality for voice-recognition to work properly. Regardless, it only comes off as a shady marketing ploy aimed at making more people buy the Kinect add-on.

But overall, the move Microsoft is making is most definitely in the right direction. This is where television, and to a greater extent entertainment and information sharing, is headed. They already have half the work done for them thanks to the innovations of their very own Xbox 360. Will they finish what they've started in a way that guarantees success? Until the update is released and the competition is clearly defined, it's far too soon to tell.