Microsoft spent a good hour or so detailing its next-generation Xbox One on Tuesday, and while it's clear the company has big plans for its new console, what's even more apparent is that gaming is no longer Redmond's central focus.
Sony and the PlayStation 4? Nintendo and the Wii U? If it felt like Microsoft's traditional rivals were an afterthought, that's because they were. Gaming was barely mentioned during the press conference's first 20 minutes. Right from the start, one thing was clear: Rather than match Sony's PS4 strategy and double down on video games, the Xbox One would take an altogether different approach.
Microsoft's Yusuf Medhi spent a significant amount of time showcasing how the system's next-generation Kinect sensor would become the user's main method of interaction with their Xbox One. Players can speak to their console, and the Kinect would respond. Tell it to switch to live television, or find some music for you, or recommend movies based on what other users are watching. Use your hands to minimize apps and multitask. You could even Skype while watching TV or playing games.
The more I watched, the less I thought about Sony or Nintendo. In fact, everything Microsoft was demonstrating reminded me of an altogether different electronics company, and it wasn't Apple or Google.
It was Samsung.
Back in January, the South Korean company unveiled its latest line-up of Smart TVs as a pre-emptive strike against Apple's unannounced-yet-seemingly-inevitable television set. Samsung's F8000 set could detect and respond to voice commands and allows you to navigate its menus via simple motion controls. Additionally, the S Recommendation feature that lets you search for TV shows, on-demand content, apps, and more, while also recommending content to you based on your preferences. It also featured social networking integration and internet browsing.
Sound familiar? The Xbox One basically turns your set into a Smart TV that can play big-budget video games. Dedicated video game players may not care as much about all these kinds of features, but to the general consumer they'll seem far more appealing.
Now, it's probably true that at some point Apple will enter the TV world, but as of now it may as well be vaporware. Google TV is available now, but as Nilay Patel notes over at The Verge, it's got its own problems that Microsoft seems to be duplicating. And Samsung's F8000 is no gaming machine. If Microsoft gets things right, the Xbox One will be the best, most full-featured living room option available on the market: Smart TV features, voice recognition, content recommendation, live television integration, and a full-blown video game console to boot.
The PS4 will probably be no slouch when it comes to some of these features, but clearly Sony is taking its system in a different direction. It doesn't hijack your TV the way the Xbox One does, and the far-reaching goal seems to be to turn the console into the ultimate social and streaming gaming system. As someone who's likely to purchase a PS4 at some point, I think that's fantastic. But let's not kid ourselves: People tend to like it when they're video game machine does more than play games.
It was true with the PS2 and Xbox, and even moreso with the PS3 and Xbox 360. They played movies, streamed TV and music services, and sold content (now, even our phones do all these things and more). Microsoft's entire goal with the Xbox brand was to become the center of the living room, and the Xbox One is another step in that direction. It could inspire enough backlash to fail, or Microsoft could bungle its digital rights management policies (both plausible outcomes), but it obviously feels that it needs to broaden the Xbox One's audience beyond dedicated gamers in order to succeed. Time will tell if it stands a chance.