March 27, 2012 at 2:25 PM ET
Everybody's talking about Apple's mysterious coming-soon iTV, and with good reason. It will potentially be a revolutionary product — an improvement on the smart TVs currently mucking up electronics stores with their ill-conceived user interfaces. But there's already a voice-controlled multimedia powerhouse on the market, the Xbox 360 with Kinect.
Tuesday, Microsoft's pre-emptive strike against Apple surged with the promised addition of streamed Comcast, HBO and Major League Baseball content.
OK, so why am I so breathless over this? Because not only does the Xbox+Kinect media interface, out since last December, establish a technological precedent for usable voice and gesture TV control, but its search function sniffs through all of your high-value content — from Netflix to Comcast — and lists all options at once. I search for "30 Rock" and see every instance of where and when I can watch it, on any of my compatible services.
This is exactly what Google TV promised but never delivered, because Google didn't (or couldn't) get the rights to the content. This is what Apple's iTV will have —ideally. But as many a tech curmudgeon has already pointed out, the kinds of big media content and distribution deals necessary to achieve a unified experience that could live up to the Apple brand are hard to make, even for Apple itself.
(I have to take a moment to mention not one but two points of disclosure: Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft, creators of the Xbox and Kinect, and NBC Universal, whose parent company is, yep, Comcast. But if you think that biases my opinion on this matter in any way, go Google my name and "iPad" or "iPhone." Yeah, I said "Google.")
I played around with a demo unit that had Comcast's service on it a few months ago, and I have used the unified video search function at home, but before the Comcast service was launched. I have not tried the search with Comcast, because that update just happened. As such, this is not a review, per se. However, I can safely declare that this functionality represents a quantum leap forward.
I never watch realtime TV, because life is too short. Instead, I rely heavily on a TiVo, whose interface hasn't meaningfully changed in 13 years, and on various smart-ish boxes that deliver Netflix and other on-demand or networked content. Now that the Xbox+Kinect pairing comes with a critical mass of current content from Comcast, it will likely become my first stop in TV watching.
There's a paradox here, of course: I need to pay for my Comcast TV service (and all those premium channels) in order to stream "Game of Thrones" on my Xbox. But hopefully it's mutually beneficial: I'd like to pay Comcast for the right to enjoy programming on my terms, rather than paying the company to tell me how to watch TV.
HBO is included in the Comcast service, and as such, Comcast subscribers don't get HBO Go, the premium channel's own on-demand service. Non-Comcast customers who subscribe to HBO can get HBO Go service, but don't get any additional non-HBO programming from their cable line-ups. The Xbox announcement also includes MLB.TV on Xbox Live, which delivers live and "final" games in HD. This service is available in Canada and Mexico as well as the U.S.
What Apple is up to is a still a mystery, and Apple has a history shaping the wills of content providers in ways other companies simply cannot. But Apple can't release another packaging of a la carte iTunes downloads plus Netflix and YouTube. Given the lukewarm reception of the Apple TV box, even at a $99 price point, that approach clearly isn't going to suffice.
As far as my limited imagination can conceive, Apple has just two choices. It can go with an app strategy, where Comcast's Xfinity app, and many many more, exists on the Apple iTV as it does on the iPad, as a silo of content. Or it can go with a more ambitious holistic experience, where subscribers to Comcast and Netflix and everything else can consume all of that content in a single smooth Apple-built interface.
The only way to do that now, without significant distortion of reality, is the way the Xbox is doing it, with unified search. It's not beautiful or even particularly elegant, I'm never going to argue that. But the Xbox+Kinect interface is functional in a way that has not been seen before. And it chalks up a new high mark that the Apple iTV will need to beat.