Microsoft has shown off some new services that tie its already popular Xbox console with the upcoming Windows 8 tablet line and the soon-to-be-released Windows Phone 8 update. Both Microsoft SmartGlass and Xbox Music utilise the growing Microsoft ecosystem over consoles, tablets and smartphones in ways that vary from predictable to outlandish.
Microsoft has revamped and renamed its music streaming service. It looks like Zune Pass just wasn’t cutting it in the face of competition like iTunes and Spotify, so Microsoft has given its trusty subscription-based music service a makeover, complete with a new name and shiny new features.
In many respects Xbox Music looks very similar to Zune Pass. The interface, despite being updated to look a bit more Windows 8-esque with its grid-like tile format, still has a familiar Zune-like appearance.
Where the first looks of Xbox Music seem to differentiate it from its previous incarnation is in the social department. With Xbox Music, Microsoft seems to have taken a leaf out of the books of services like Spotify that focus on encouraging their users to share songs and activity updates to social media platforms. Unfortunately right now details of how this sharing will be accomplished, whether it be over Windows Live or over other platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, are a bit sketchy but hopefully the system will be as wide-reaching and accessible as possible.
SmartGlass is a new service whereby portable devices and PCs can extend the online console experience. SmartGlass goes beyond gaming in that it allows the user to share multiple forms of content between their console and other devices without losing their place. For instance, should a user be watching a movie on their computer, but wish to move in to their Xbox-connected TV, they can do so at the press of a button and continue viewing from the same spot. This isn’t a completely new kind of service, as we have seen similar things from Amazon and other content suppliers, but it’s good to see that it’s becoming commonplace.
A new bit of functionality that SmartGlass offers is context-specific information that is designed enhance the viewing or gaming experience. An example of this is that a gamer can access live-updated information regarding new in-game objectives, complete with blueprints of areas in to which they are about to proceed. This information can be accessed via a tablet or phone, so the gamer can simply glance down for the additional info. Alternatively the tablet can be used as a controller if need be; we don’t see this being a particularly popular use, but it could come in handy in a pinch when friends are over and you’re short one controller.
The live information functionality also extends to TV shows such as Game of Thrones, where a viewer could in theory open up an interactive map of the fictional kingdom (Westeros) in which much of the show takes place. The map would automatically update to where you are in the show’s timeline and show troop movements, parts of the kingdom in which important events are happening and also highlight where other main characters are currently situated in relation to everyone else. This is a truly unique concept and it really serves to extend the storyline of a show beyond your TV screen and out in to your very hands.
We’re still hesitant as to just how detailed this service will be and we certainly don’t see every TV series offering support content of this depth. This is definitely the kind of thing that would be easily killed off by lack of support, as creating detailed live information for a TV series would represent a more effort on behalf of the show’s creators.
There are a few more details that Microsoft is yet to go in to, as well as hints that we haven’t even seen everything that this service can provide just yet. For now we’re pretty happy with what we’ve heard, although once again we’re cautiously sceptical of large-scale adoption.
The best news regarding SmartGlass is a total breath of fresh air in the current cloud-locked tech market: SmartGlass will work on Windows 8, Windows Phone, Xbox, iOS (iPhones, iPads etc) and Android devices. That’s right; this service will not be Microsoft-device specific. This is a fantastic move by Microsoft. Not only does it make the whole system seem less like a perk for those sitting on a specific side of the fence, but it also opens up the potential user base significantly. We’re also hoping that this could indicated a wider range of device support for Xbox music, rather than the Windows-Phone-only approach that we saw with Zune Pass.
As we said before many aspects of SmartGlass are adoption-dependent, so appealing to as many users as possible is the kind of smart move that we’re unfortunately starting to see less and less of these days.