Microsoft's Xbox Finally Starts to Realize Its Potential—and It's Got Little to Do With Games

I have a Netflix machine in my living room. It sits beneath my TV, the tiny RJ-45 jack in the back doing an order of magnitude more work than the practically obsolete DVD tray in the front. Its entertainment value can be summed up in a simple formula: When the number of people in my house is a nonzero number, the probability that it is the primary source of entertainment is somewhere close to one.

It could be a lot more than that, if I wanted it to be. It offers access to Comcast's Xfinity services, but since Comcast can't seem to keep my Internet connection running for more than eight hours at a stretch, I tend to keep my interactions with their other offerings to a minimum. Other services are similarly offered; their lack of use stems more from a lack of interest than an active decision.

It can stream media from any other device on my home network, pumping it through the largest set of speakers and screen in the house from any point in range. If I wanted to pay a little extra, I could add a gadget that would allow me to use any of these functions through gestures and words.

Oh, and it plays games, too. But it's hard to remember the last time I thought of it as a mere gaming console.

Pretty soon, it might be able to do even more. Microsoft threw down the gauntlet earlier this month at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, naming this as the year that all your devices—from your computer to your tablet to your phone, with the Xbox 360 at the helm—will finally all speak the same language and live together in perfect harmony.

It's a difficult argument, especially since so many have made the same promise over the years, Microsoft far from the least among them. But this claim has a name, it has a pre-installed userbase, and it has enough momentum behind it to make the move almost an incremental change.

First, the name. Microsoft calls it SmartGlass, and it looks to be an extension of the philosophy that put Netflix and Hulu apps on the Xbox 360 and Xbox Live apps on non-Windows smartphones. The basic idea is a single entertainment interface that stretches across multiple platforms, allowing any one device to interact with all connected devices.

The Xbox 360 remains the entertainment hub, of course, but, tablets and phones would serve as connected entertainment satellites. A user who streams his favorite show to his tablet or his phone at work could flick his content over to his console when he gets home and continue to watch it at that point on his TV. SmartGlass could then use the mobile device to provide supplementary content, or to just be used as a remote control. This stretches over to games as well, with mobile devices used as secondary screens or touchscreen controllers.

But more than that, SmartGlass wants to tie in the idea that the connection inherent in networked entertainment should be between the user and the data itself instead of between the user and any single device. It's a flipside of the claim that PC users don't "own" the software they purchase. If a subscription agreement is between me and the provider, the device that provides the content shouldn't matter. Let any one of them do it, or even let them all do part of it all at once.

Again, a lofty goal—if these devices weren't already out there. Sixty-seven million Xboxes are in the wild, with more than half that many owners using their consoles online in some capacity. Add the growing number of tablets and smartphones out there, and the gap between the disparate gadgets of today and the interconnected framework of tomorrow becomes a lot more narrow. SmartGlass is less of a stretch if the technology is already there, both from a device and a user standpoint.

Keep in mind, few of these things are particularly amazing to the sufficiently tech-minded individual. The Xbox isn't the first TV-oriented streaming media platform any more than any one of Roku's assorted boxes are. These are things that people have been doing ever since the idea of the media server or the streaming video service existed—they just didn't do them all at once, under such a large banner.

What Microsoft is doing with its console (and what it wants to do with the rest of your gadgets) is the same thing that Apple did with its phone. Instead of dragging its userbase kicking and screaming into the future, it sat back as they bought several million products that could bring that future about, and now they're doing so at their own leisure. Once again, the general public stands to be won over not by dramatic shifts or game-changing leaps in technology, but by convenience. m