Microsoft Takes First Step Toward Future of TV and Entertainment on Xbox 360

This week, Microsoft will begin rolling out a series of updates for its Xbox 360 that will further evolve the console's TV and entertainment capabilities. The first of these updates, arriving tomorrow, provides a new UI but doesn't dramatically change how the console works. The bigger updates come later, starting in late December, as various content creators and other TV and entertainment partners come on board.

Microsoft had previously and vaguely promised a revolution for live TV and other entertainment partners and then promised a December 6 rollout for this content. But the December 6 launch involves a new UI and a rejiggering of the Xbox 360's software underpinnings. And based on early testing of this update, there's no new content there at all. Instead, the new content will begin arriving over time, starting in late December, and will vary wildly depending on where you live.

Microsoft's press materials betray what's really happening: The Xbox 360 is getting a new version of its UI, called the Dashboard, as it does virtually every year. This year's update involves deeper integration with the Kinect sensor's motion and voice command capabilities and with Microsoft's Bing search technologies.

"With this update, Xbox 360 system owners will experience Kinect voice control integrated with Bing search, making your TV and entertainment experiences more social and personal than ever," Microsoft President Don Mattrick says. "All your entertainment is together in one place—your games, movies, TV shows, music, and sports."

Well, not all your entertainment. Starting December 6, Xbox 360 users will be eligible for a Dashboard update that provides access to exactly the same list of entertainment sources that are already available today, including ESPN, Hulu and Hulu Plus, NBC Today, and Netflix in the United States. None of this content is new to the service; in fact, all of it has been available for at least a year. (Other locales have a different selection of video content available to them; whatever that selection is will remain the same after the December 6 update.)

In last year's Fall Update to the Xbox 360 Dashboard, Microsoft added the ability to control certain (but not all) Xbox 360 experiences with the Kinect, using hand motions or voice commands. With this year's update, those capabilities have been expanded, as has the console's ability to search for content via a newly added Xbox catalog of content. This latter capability uses something Microsoft now calls "Bing on Xbox," though I'd point out that the feature was pretty much present a year ago. For example, users of the current Dashboard version can say, "Xbox, ESPN" to launch the ESPN experience. That functionality, again, debuted a year ago.

So, why all the excitement over a relatively minor update? This year's Dashboard update includes a major remaking of the system's underpinnings, one that enables future content updates that are indeed actually very interesting. And starting in late December, not this week, numerous hardware partners will begin offering a wide range of TV and entertainment content though the console, though again the selection varies depending on where you are and—more troubling—on which content partners you already have relationships with.

For example, in the United States, the cable giants Comcast and Verizon FIOS are both partnering with Microsoft to bring content from their networks to the Xbox 360. But whereas customers of FIOS will have access to both live TV and streaming On Demand content, customers of the Comcast service will only have access to On Demand content. And while Verizon is starting its service in late 2011, Comcast won't be available until 2012.

A complete listing of what will become available by the end of the year is difficult to communicate since it varies so much by region. But in the United States, you can expect to see content from Crackle (Sony Pictures), Dailymotion, iHeartRadio,, TMZ, UFC, VEVO, Vudu, and YouTube. And then in early 2012, CinemaNow, HBO GO, and MLB.TV will come online as well.

I had previously announced plans to review the Fall 2011 Dashboard Update for Xbox 360 this week, but given that the most valuable parts of the service won't be available until later, my review will have to wait. In the meantime, if you are an Xbox 360 owner, get ready to update your console. You'll be prompted automatically when you log on beginning Tuesday.

And if you're outside the United States, you'll want to spend some time examining what will become available to you over time. Confusingly, Microsoft's official press materials are incomplete in this regard, but I found the list on Major Nelson's Blog to offer a more complete showing.

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