There’s been a lot of confusion about Microsoft’s just-announced SmartGlass technology for the Xbox 360. Some have likened it to Apple’s AirPlay technology. Some have claimed that it’s an “answer to the Nintendo Wii UI.” Most seem to think it’s something new. But it’s not. Xbox SmartGlass is nothing more than an updated version of the existing Xbox Companion app.
Xbox Companion debuted as an app for Windows Phone 7 in December 2011. And of course, the Windows 8 version of the app debuted in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview a few months later, in February 2012. (Be sure to check out Windows 8 Release Preview: Changes To The Xbox Apps for an update to the Windows 8 version.)
These two mobile apps are essentially identical, at least functionally, and they can both be considered part of the same version 1.0 generation of code. What sets Xbox SmartGlass apart from Xbox Companion, aside from the name, are two things: Some functional additions and a new cross-platform strategy in which the app will be made available on Apple’s iPhone and iPad, and Android-based handsets and tablets, in addition to Windows 8-based phones, PCs, and tablets.
Both of these are important.
Xbox Companion, as its name suggests, is a “companion” for the Xbox 360. It can be used, today, in Windows Phone or Windows 8 alongside the console, either as a glorified front-end or as an accessory device that will often display additional context sensitive information about the content you’re viewing the Xbox 360. Xbox Companion can be used to discover games, TV shows or movies, or music that you will then enjoy on the console. But you can also control the Xbox using the app (just not in games).
Xbox SmartGlass will work the same way, but it will also do more, and will work with non-Windows mobile platforms. It’s everything you’d expect from a new version of Xbox Companion, when you think about it.
Based on Microsoft’s E3 media event and the associated information provided to the press, Xbox SmartGlass provides the following new features and functionality (when compared to Xbox Companion):
Media integration. When used in conjunction with the Xbox Music, Xbox Video and other compatible media- and sports-related Xbox apps, the SmartGlass mobile app can show you more information about the media you’re enjoying on the Xbox 360. For example, as you play music with Xbox Music, you could use the Xbox SmartGlass app to fiddle with the playlist, find out more information about the currently playing artist or song, and so on.
Device handoff. With the Xbox SmartGlass mobile app, you can start watching a movie or TV show on your Windows 8 device and then finish watching it on the Xbox 360. (This is possible in the Windows 8 Release Preview today using the Xbox Companion app: Just select “Play on Xbox” from the Video app’s app bar.)
Game integration. Specially written Xbox 360 games of the future will let you use the SmartGlass app as a second screen to perform secondary actions that can impact the game on the main screen. For example, a coming version of Madden football may let you draw up plays in the SmartGlass app and then run the play, using your Xbox controller, on the big screen.
Web browsing. Microsoft is bringing its Internet Explorer web browser to the Xbox later this year, but as you might expect, browsing the web with an Xbox controller isn’t very elegant. So Microsoft is augmenting that awkward experience with other input possibilities, including Kinect-based gestures and, yes, using the Xbox SmartGlass app as a remote control.
And … that’s it. Not really earth-shattering, but certainly useful.
For whatever it’s worth, the Windows 8 Release Preview offered a clue that Xbox Companion was about to be replaced: In the Consumer Preview, Xbox Companion was built into Windows 8, but in the Release Preview, you needed to go find and download it from the store. That’s a curious fate for an app that is required to use the Xbox-related features of three other Windows 8 apps, (Xbox) Music, (Xbox) Video, and Xbox Games, each of which is in fact included with Windows 8. But now we know why: Xbox Companion is just a placeholder, until Xbox SmartGlass (and the associated Xbox 360 dashboard update) are ready later this year. I’m eager to try this software, and suspect it will offer a compelling integration story.