Netflix through your XBOX?

Netflix through your XBOX?

Summary: I wish I could say I had inside knowledge about the veracity of this rumor, but sad to say, I do not. However, I desperately hope that this rumor is true, as it simply makes sense for Microsoft to do something like this.

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I wish I could say I had inside knowledge about the veracity of this rumor, but sad to say, I do not. However, I desperately hope that this rumor is true, as it simply makes sense for Microsoft to do something like this.

According to this article on MSNBC, Microsoft may be set to announce a link-up with Netflix, one that would allow the full Netflix library to be streamed for instant viewing through an XBOX (or, at least the ones that Netflix has negotiated rights to stream over network connections, which has to be more than the paltry sum Microsoft has rights to stream through its XBOX Live service).

Timing-wise, it would make sense. HD DVD as a format is now, officially, dead. The manner of its collapse was certainly peculiar, and suprisingly quick. A decision by one studio (albeit a rather important one - Warner Brothers) has led to a domino effect wherein official support for HD DVD has all but disappeared in about a month (with Wal-Mart, once believed to be tilting towards HD DVD on account of its lower price, becoming the company to put the final nail in the HD DVD coffin) .

XBOX will likely offer a Blu-ray add-on player in the near future, something you can do when you haven't committed your console to one format or the other. As a longer term strategy, however, it would make most sense to do something serious about making digital downloads - the thing that executives up and down Microsoft have been saying will make HD discs of either format obsolete - a reality. XBOX Live's video download service was a nice start, but Microsoft MUST get more movies available through the service if it hopes to pose any kind of serious competition to video rentals.

A Netflix hookup would, hopefully, offer the necessary breadth, while giving Netflix a TV-attached platform through which to stream their content. Though Netflix has partnered with LG for its own Set-Top Box, I think that will be somewhat of an uphill battle. How many TV-attached devices are people willing to install in their homes? Would HBO be as popular if everyone had to have an HBO-specific STB atop their television, as was the case in the company's early days?

It's hard to get extra devices attached to a TV, and in that regard, game consoles have significant advantages (which likely explains Microsoft's willingness to undertake the expensive battle for game console dominance). Besides making an XBOX more attractive as a source of entertainment, Netflix would benefit as well, as it would give them an instant installed base.

Of course, there would have to be some work done to make a Netflix store through XBOX live viable, work that cuts to the core criticism I have of the XBOX strategy as a whole. If you ever used the XBOX Live video download service, you would have noted how horrible the user interface is. All videos are essentially stacked in a long list, which would be a nightmare if they ever did get more than the 400 movies (at last count) that were available for rental through the service.

Part of the problem is likely the rigid "blade" structure that is the user interface convention for the XBOX 360. Though it's perfectly fair to have a common navigation paradigm that makes the XBOX UI readily understandable to all users of an XBOX, why can't there be a bit more flexiblity with respect to blade CONTENT?

I spoke last week about Microsoft's core identity as maker of platforms and APIs, and that Microsoft should embrace that identity as surely as Apple embraces their designer gestalt because it constitutes something that Microsoft does very well. That should apply equally to Microsoft's efforts in game consoles.

Though XNA (Microsoft's API for user-created games) is nice - though a bit restricted in scope - I really wish Microsoft would start to treat the XBOX as their TV-attached platform upon which third parties could create more than just games. With all the development technologies floating around Microsoft - and particularly with the isolation capabilities of .NET (providing more control over what a .NET program would do within an XBOX) - that should be a far easier task than would be possible for any of Microsoft's game console competitors.

Clearly, some work needs to be done to the XBOX UI to make a Netflix store interesting to look at, much less usable. I sincerely hope that those efforts won't be a one-off attempt to shoehorn a new feature into the XBOX frame. Rather, it should serve as the start of something that will enable the XBOX console to be a true platform for TV-oriented services. Wouldn't it be interesting if I could write a custom Silverlight application (as a useful and sensible technology example) accessible from one of the XBOX blades that is dedicated to third-party content?

That approach is a specifically Microsoft strategy, and would play to Microsoft's strengths while distinguishing the XBOX even more from its competitors.

Topics: Hardware, Microsoft, Mobility

John Carroll

About John Carroll

John Carroll has delivered his opinion on ZDNet since the last millennium. Since May 2008, he is no longer a Microsoft employee. He is currently working at a unified messaging-related startup.

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7 comments
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  • Would that compete against Media Center Extenders?

    I realize the extenders and XBOX are really similar, but several new extenders were released at CES that are "quiet" and can also stream HD content over Wireless N.

    You can already watch movies through Vongo or Unbox (I think) on the extender and they're also priced $200 - $300. But nobody seems to actually do this...granted I don't think the extender market is all that large.

    So I suppose going via the XBOX, you can reach more people, but then again I know a lot of people don't want a noisy console in their living room. It's one thing to drown it out with video game noise, but another to have the thing run in the background all the time. Maybe the 2010 Xbox will solve this problem.

    I'm just not sure MS wants to go in the long-run to get into everybody's living room, and it appears they are betting on two horses at the moment...XBOX and Media Center, but also teaming with Comcast (via CES news) so that could be a third horse out of the gate.
    Question everything
    • Sort of...

      ...Extenders are just that...and extender, and I think they are quite important (though the XBOX serves as an extender as well). People have lots of user-generated content sitting on PCs. Finding a way to bridge that divide is important.

      That doesn't mean that the STB shouldn't be able to bypass the PC entirely to get its content. It should serve as both a bridge to the PC as well as a way to get content directly over the Internet.

      [i]So I suppose going via the XBOX, you can reach more people, but then again I know a lot of people don't want a noisy console in their living room.[/i]

      That's a damn good point, which is why it might make more sense to make the XBOX look less like a game console and more like something that sits unobtrusively next to the other bits of your entertainment system. Hey, go nuts with controllers, but make the device that actually serves to power the game experience look rather...boring.

      Of course, that's just my opinion. It has to look NICE, of course, but customizable front panels are less important if your goal is to have your programmable beachhead attached to most TV sets.

      [i]I'm just not sure MS wants to go in the long-run to get into everybody's living room, and it appears they are betting on two horses at the moment...XBOX and Media Center, but also teaming with Comcast (via CES news) so that could be a third horse out of the gate.[/i]

      Well, if they're not, they are thinking too small. That would be like Microsoft deciding in the mid-80s that they would be happy just being the OS of choice in business environments, rather than pushing for "a PC in every home."

      I do think they want an XBOX in every home, though that might mean thinking of the gaming side as something that attracts people to install it in the first place, not as the complete reason for the XBOX to exist.
      John Carroll
  • Should the company change strategy again?

    When XBox was first announced it seemed intended to be the entertainment center in the living room. Then the specifications were reduced until it became a less expensive game console. Which proved a good strategy when Sony's PS3 proved very expensive. And encumbered by the Bu-Ray as part of Sony's effort at the digital living room.

    How good a deal would Sony give Microsoft on Blu-Ray with XBox?

    I think that Blu-Ray has missed its chance. Players that improve standard DVDs are less expensive and the difference is apparently not substantial.

    So Microsoft might end by paying Sony a great deal of money - Blu-Ray must be available to those who require it if XBox is to be an entertainment device - without much interest from customers.

    So if Microsoft shifts back to XBox entertainment, wouldn't that be arduous and expensive? And how profitable could it be?
    Anton Philidor
    • Maybe you are right...

      ...and they should just stick it out, favoring instead streaming media downloads. I somehow doubt the Wiis popularity will be much affected by the lack of a Blu-ray player (not that it suppport HD video at all, but even so...).

      I noted the Blu-ray add-on possibility mostly in passing, as its something that isn't technologically rocket science. Whether Microsoft has much interest in pursuing that route (or whether it is even a good idea) is a separate question.

      Do people use their game console to play movies in credible numbers is the biggest question. If game consoles aren't the normal place to have such devices (and with Blu-ray, you probably HAVE to stick with PS3 until the format gets its standards worked out), than offering a Blu-ray add-on could be an expensive waste of money.
      John Carroll
  • I was wondering how JC would spin it

    "According to this article on MSNBC, Microsoft may be set to announce"

    Wow a rumour that they MAY be set to ANNOUNCE something.

    Lets recap why HD DVD lost:

    "A decision by one studio (albeit a rather important one - Warner Brothers) has led
    to a domino effect wherein official support for HD DVD has all but disappeared in
    about a month"

    No mention of universal consumer electronic manufacturers support, well over 70%
    content produced, outselling HD DVD players and titles more than 3 to 1.

    HD DVD was a loser years ago. Well done JC in supporting MS for this long though,
    few would have back a dead horse as enthusiastically.

    So MS technology is passed over by another market, but MS fanboys rejoice it's
    rumoured they might be going to announce something, perhaps relating to movie
    downloads, sometime soon (or not) - perhaps even a Blu-ray player (well someday,
    maybe). Good work JC;-)
    Richard Flude
    • Re: HD DVD

      [i]No mention of universal consumer electronic manufacturers support, well over 70% content produced, outselling HD DVD players and titles more than 3 to 1.[/i]

      Hardware companies would support a system that would require existing infrastructure to be ripped out and replaced with new ones (a fact I've discussed many times in the past). Shocking, truly.

      As for content companies, well, things were a lot more evenly balanced before Warner brothers, and in terms of released titles, were virtually neck and neck (and HD DVDs were rated higher, from a quality and feature standpoint).

      As for more players sold that support Blu-ray, as you well know, that is only the case if you count the PS3, which accounted for over 90% of all Blu-ray players sold, and had a laughably small attach rate for Blu-ray movies (read: people weren't buying PS3s for HD disc playback capability).

      But, I'll give you your chance to strut around shouting "I told you so." I would be doing the same thing if events had gone the other way...and as of a few months ago, it really could have gone either way.

      [i]So MS technology is passed over by another market, but MS fanboys rejoice it's rumoured they might be going to announce something, perhaps relating to movie downloads, sometime soon (or not) - perhaps even a Blu-ray player (well someday,
      maybe). Good work JC;-)[/i]

      It's so much fun to have you as a fan :)
      John Carroll
  • Sony's gamble.

    Sony spent a great deal of money developing, manufacturing, and promoting Blu-Ray. But comparatively few titles have been issued for the format, and those which have been issued have not sold well. And PS3 sales are probably disappointing to the company.

    An alternative, inexpensive players that improve the play of regular DVDs, has been popular.

    And the movement to Blu-Ray was sudden.

    This is speculation. Sony saw that Blu-Ray could easily turn into a waste of money. So the company made arrangements with the movie studios and with WalMart to defeat the other standard. Given the suddenness and apparent coordination of the Blu-Ray endorsements, Sony may well have made arrangements favorable to the hold-outs.

    So now the issue becomes whether Sony can sell enough players and DVDs from its studio to pay back all of the investment, including the most recent payments. For that to happen, the competition had to end. But the company's effort can fail.

    In fact, I think that, given the price sensitivity shown by PS3, Sony is more likely to fail to make a significant profit on Blu-Ray.
    Anton Philidor