TV DVR: The big killer feature missing from Xbox One

microsoft_xbox_one_gtf_img1Aside from a lack of backwards compatibility with Xbox 360 games (which is being worked on as I write this), what's the other big reason I am holding off on a first gen Xbox One? A TV streaming & DVR experience that was much talked about in the buildup to launch, but has fallen short in reinventing the way we manage and consume TV content today.

When I first heard about Microsoft's Xbox One plans at E3, I was thinking the same thing so many others probably were: my Tivo (or cable box) days are numbered. But my lofty plans for a simplified entertainment center were quickly killed, when I learned that Microsoft had no plans on replacing your DVR, but merely piggybacking onto it.

It's rather disappointing in more ways than one, and I'm personally a bit confused as to why Microsoft settled on such a lackluster approach to Xbox One's TV capabilities. A recent story on Neowin pinned this in exactly the right light: TV done right could easily be Microsoft's coup de gras for the taking. I know very well I'm not the only one who would adore the idea of being able to combine the power of Tivo into my Xbox. Or am I just crazy and alone here?

SmartGlass-OneGuide

The Xbox One has a beautiful TV channel guide layout and SmartGlass apps, among other navigation niceties to enhance the viewing experience. But its reliance on an external cable box or DVR make the value proposition rather muted. Microsoft should be focused on how buyers can ditch their existing gear and centralize onto the Xbox One; not just piggyback the console onto legacy cable TV components. (Image Source: Microsoft)

Scott Stein of CNET sums up the issues with Xbox One's halfway attempt to play as a TV channel mediator. "The real problem here is that the Xbox One doesn't do anything magical with TV; it just allows pass-through, and split-screen app-viewing, and gameplay."

Scott goes on to further say:

Microsoft hopes the Xbox One will add more robust DVR control and deeper cable access down the road. How soon, or how easy that is to enable, I have no idea. But I'm tempted to just yank the cable box out of the Xbox One until that day arrives.

My thoughts are fairly in line with Scott's so far. In fact, I'm purposely holding back on buying the Xbox One until Microsoft clarifies its vision for TV capabilities with the new console. As I previously wrote, I'm a casual gamer now who cares as much, or more, about the media consumption experience of my chosen home game console. And I'm itching to let my mom have my Tivo if Xbox One can do this right.

But until something drastic happens, I'm not sure if that's going to be possible. If I have to use my Tivo as a crutch for my Xbox One to consume TV content, I might as well just stick with my Xbox 360. Heck, I can get Titanfall on it still, so I'm plenty satisfied on the gaming end.

CableCard: The Answer to Giving TV Watchers What they Want

Lots of commentary on the web about this Xbox One TV/DVR dilemma sits around Microsoft's inability to negotiate for content streaming on the new console. That's understandable, and an uphill battle they can easily avoid getting into. While ideally, yes, having fully internet-streamed ala carte TV channels through Xbox Live would be ideal, there is a middle ground most people forget already exists.

It's called a CableCard, and has been around in numerous forms for about a decade now. Yes, it's limited to the United States only right now, which creates a problem for overseas buyers, but global adoption of any TV content access standard is a mountain too high to climb right now.

But if anything, it would be a start -- and if Microsoft was able to lead the way in the States via a CableCard enabled Xbox One, it would surely give them leverage to force change in other parts of the world, albeit slowly.

I've never owned or rented a cable box personally, as I hate recurring rental fees for hardware and happen to think the Tivo interface blows away anything provided by Comcast. As such, I've been renting a CableCard from my cable provider for years. It's merely a locked down PC Card that is issued by the cable company which you merely insert into the proper slot on your Tivo (or other CableCard device) and configure via the native device software menu.

In terms of complexity, there is none. It's a card that goes into its appropriate slot in a one-way fashion, and comes with all of the necessary unlocking bits to decode your paid cable channels natively on a DVR like a Tivo without the need or expense of a rented unit. I've never had one go bad on me, and the only time I've ever had to play with them is during initial installation. They just work -- and that's part of their beauty.

If Microsoft were to up the ante in the home theater wars, and build a gen 2 Xbox One with a CableCard slot, this would allow people to benefit in numerous ways:

  • People could ditch their existing cable boxes or DVRs and simplify on using the Xbox One as a true "all in one" home entertainment device. Ultimately, the ability to use a single device for gaming and ALL TV content viewing, something which Sony or Nintendo don't have anywhere on their radar.
  • Lower monthly costs for having access to fuller cable TV channel lineups, as CableCard rentals are pennies compared to what DVRs or cable boxes from the local cable company cost.
  • The ability to record, watch, and fast forward shows on Xbox One natively, without the need to use the rather limited "HDMI passthrough" option that currently exists for TV interaction. Xbox One's 500GB hard drive is on par with what Tivo has offered for years already.
  • Cortana capabilities to enhance TV watching, anyone? I'll leave this to your imagination, but I could personally see myself using the new digital assistant with simple voice commands: "Cortana, jump to any channel showing Bar Rescue or Storage Wars right now" or "Cortana, play recorded Seinfeld episode The Pony Remark." This would give Microsoft a good excuse to finally replace their flawed voice command system on the Xbox One with something already coded and ready for usage.
  • Every console can do streaming apps already. But real, live streaming TV channels? Now that would be a game changer that Sony or Nintendo couldn't touch with a ten foot pole. Aside from the hardcore gamers attached to the hip of the competing consoles, Xbox One would have huge mindshare from the average consumer.

The reason I am holding such high hope on the potential for a CableCard introduction on Xbox One is because it is essentially a win-win for all sides. Microsoft gives buyers a huge reason to choose Xbox One over PS4. Buyers will be able to get access to all of their favorite channels they already love. And content behemoths (as much as I dislike them) won't have to get into nasty negotiations with Microsoft over streaming rights, and they can keep working with subscribers as they already do.

Most large cable companies already have CableCard programs in place and such a change would require next to no investment from their side. My local area has both Comcast and Wide Open West as cable providers, and each of them offers CableCard with just a simple phone call to support.

tivo-mcard

CableCard has allowed generations of Tivos and other devices to have nearly 1:1 access to cable channels like rented cable boxes do. How much would it seriously cost Microsoft to include such ports on future Xbox One hardware? Tivo paved the path that Microsoft should consider following. (Image Source: Engadget)

The only big change that would have to get introduced is a commitment from Microsoft to a hardware redesign of an upcoming Xbox One generation. But even this is something Microsoft is accustomed to. The Xbox 360 went through no less than 6 motherboard revisions during its history, and even the original Xbox saw a few technical revisions primarily aimed at preventing hackers from exploiting mods.

The Xbox 360 got an HDMI port and even Wi-Fi built in thanks to console revision updates. To say there isn't a precedent already set would be completely mistaken.

The other underpinnings necessary to make CableCard work properly are already in place on Xbox One. Fully encrypted HDMI? Check. Ethernet support for channel guide updates from Xbox Live? Check. And the same internet capabilities could appease cable providers who would want leverage in pushing CableCard updates over Xbox One firmware updates to disable any newly discovered loopholes for CableCard hackers, I suppose.

It's not a question of if Microsoft can do it; it's a matter of whether they are serious about having Xbox One take the reigns in the living room wars. CableCard support for native TV capabilities would give people looking for the all inclusive home theater experience little reason to look elsewhere.

My Eventual Dream: Ala Carte Channel Subscriptions via Xbox Live

One can dream. Even if it's a pipe dream. Microsoft was reportedly trying to work up its own Netflix-esque alternative a few years back, most likely to prepare for a grandiose Xbox One launch, which was shelved prematurely. Playing nice with the content big boys of Hollywood and its various backers is like dealing with a legal mafia. They make all the rules, and if you want in, you'd better be a yes man.

Even if it did work out, another Netflix alternative is not really what I would love to see come to fruition. On-demand media streaming is old hat already, and Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and the rest do a darn good job at it. I'd much rather see Microsoft to strive for the golden nugget: pure ala carte subscription options for traditional cable and broadcast TV channels.

You know, the stuff that hosts live sports, news access, and other content you just can't get via streaming apps until days or weeks after it airs?

Imagine if you could bring up your Xbox Live guide, and merely have a pick list of channels available that you could subscribe to piecemeal on a monthly basis, as needed? Just want to watch sports on ESPN or FSN? Or do you prefer news channels like Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC? Or even perhaps a little bit of both? That kind of choice, either down to the channel, or a genre of channels, is my eventual dream for subscription-based streaming TV.

No doubt, this would be a large fight for Microsoft to take on. Cable companies love the oligopoly they control now, and will fight tooth and nail against it. But Microsoft has an ace up its sleeve which cable companies can't deny: a large installed user base. And for the most part, unlike that of Sony's base, one that is on the whole willing to pay for Xbox Live on a yearly basis already.

To put this number in perspective, Microsoft let loose that it had 46 million Xbox Live subscribers as of April 2014. With the launch of Xbox One, that number has no doubt got to be larger by now. While a good number likely replaced their Xbox 360s with Xbox Ones, there has to be a fair number of first time purchasers who picked up Xbox Ones and Live subscriptions to boot.

Cable companies would be hard pressed to turn their backs on such a potential revenue stream. And I look at it this way as well: many people are cutting the cable box cord as of late. If the cable companies were smart, they would realize that changing their draconian channel subscription options would stop the hemorrhage of viewers and actually retain large numbers of their base.

What's so radical about only paying for the channels we wish to watch? We pay for internet speeds based upon our consumption habits. Cell phone bills are charged in a similar manner. And all other utilities follow suit -- electricity, water, etc. Is it that crazy to believe that some kind of pay-for-what-you-consume plan couldn't work via Xbox Live?

None of the cable companies have yet shown solid reasons why it wouldn't work as the rest of what we subscribe to in our lives. And as such, I'm challenging Microsoft to stand up for the TV channel watching community (me included) and start fighting for the next generation living room.

The Xbox One ecosystem is only half the answer. We need a TV subscription revolution to go along, and it's clearly Microsoft's war for the taking now.

Derrick WlodarzDerrick Wlodarz is an IT Specialist who owns Park Ridge, IL (USA) based technology consulting & service company FireLogic, with over eight+ years of IT experience in the private and public sectors. He holds numerous technical credentials from Microsoft, Google, and CompTIA and specializes in consulting customers on growing hot technologies such as Office 365, Google Apps, cloud-hosted VoIP, among others. Derrick is an active member of CompTIA's Subject Matter Expert Technical Advisory Council that shapes the future of CompTIA exams across the world. You can reach him at derrick at wlodarz dot net

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