Microsoft TV is About Cable Testing IP


Microsoft formally announced partners for its latest Xbox TV initiative today. In addition to Comcast and Verizon FiOS (two partners that were leaked last week), Xbox owners will be able to access content in varying degrees from Bravo, HBO Go and Syfy in the US, along with BBC in the UK, Telefonica in Spain, Rogers On Demand in Canada, Televisa in Mexico, ZDF in Germany, and MediaSet it Italy.

It’s all well and good to get excited about Microsoft TV, but there’s no major revolution here yet. In order to get Comcast or Verizon video on your Xbox, for example, you have to be an existing Comcast or Verizon subscriber as well. This is not over-the-top cable TV, freely available to anyone with an Xbox. It’s cable testing the waters of IP delivery.

Verizon has had systems in place for a while now that support delivery of linear television over IP. Although FiOS has always used IP for its on-demand content, we heard back in January that it could flip a switch for delivery of its broadcast content as well. Meanwhile, Comcast has steadily upgraded its own VOD architecture for future IP delivery, and is reportedly even testing linear broadcasting over IP on the MIT campus.

The Xbox experiment is a way for Verizon and Comcast (and others) to test out their new delivery systems. Limited adoption – built in by the inherent service limitations – will let them do a controlled introduction of new technology. They’ll stream a relatively small amount of video over IP, and be able to see how their networks hold up. If that goes well, they’ll push the boundaries a bit farther.

The experiment is a good one, and you’d better believe that every other cable operator will be watching closely. But it’s no revolution for consumers. Not yet. On the bright side, getting to IP delivery of video means cable providers will have a lot more flexibility. Once the networks systems are proven, they can start to play with business models. If the rumors of a la carte discussions are any indication, the timing is right.

24 thoughts on “Microsoft TV is About Cable Testing IP”

  1. “Xbox owners will be able to access content in varying degrees from Bravo, HBO Go and Syfy in the US”

    Does this mean the first rollout of HBO Go for lean-back?

    Cuz that’d be news.

  2. Interesting. While it doesn’t look like a watershed event, and we really won’t know until we see exactly what (and how much) is available to whom, Vevo, Crackle and HBO Go content look pretty sweet. Adding those to existing channels Netflix, Hulu Plus, Zune and ESPN isn’t too shabby. I guess the blurb about “this holiday” vice something more specific means we could be waiting until the week before Christmas before we see the new content and new interface.

  3. “While it doesn’t look like a watershed event”

    I think it’s not widely understood how much HBO Go on lean-back could be a watershed event…

  4. Chucky –

    If an HBO GO subscription can be attained outside of an existing cable/satellite subscription, if the full complement of HBO content is available through the service and if all the content is HD video/5.1 audio, then we are approaching “watershed” territory. Conversely, if you have to be an existing HBO subscriber, if only a subset of content is available and the video quality is reminiscent of Starz….

  5. HBO has made it very clear that it wants to stay within the cable subscription model. I’d be absolutely shocked if you could get the HBO content here without first subscribing to a cable package.

  6. “Conversely, if you have to be an existing HBO subscriber…”

    I’m an HBO subscriber, since I’d cancel every other video service, and perhaps electricity, before I cancelled before I cancelled HBO.

    But HBO Go has been “coming soon” to lean-back since approximately 1953, and it’s never actually arrived. If it shows up, it’ll be a very big deal, as it’ll show us a non-ala-carte OTT video service that actually has serious value for consumers with open wallets, (who are the only consumers who matter from the POV of content companies), and it’ll show HBO’s hand on the PQ front.

    (I’ve been of the opinion that HBO Go lean-back would never show up, or if it did, it’d have Starz ultra-low PQ resolution. So an actual deployment would be news, whichever way they go on PQ.)

    The HBO back catalog is the cream of the crop, and bringing it to lean-back would be an real earthquake in the space, especially if PQ is “good enough”. But just moving the thing from vaporware to deployment is pretty damn important.

    Hell, I’d run out and buy an Xbox just for HBO Go, if the PQ is “good enough”. But I won’t believe any of the rumors until I see it. Vaporware is vaporware until it’s not.

    “and if all the content is HD video/5.1 audio”

    Netflix HD has proved that “good enough” is a standard that matters. They just have to ship a Netflix HD bit-rate, and the revolution is here.

  7. Thanks, Mari. That suggests HBO GO is a No Go for me. What exactly would be the appeal of HBO GO, via the Xbox for example, if you already have a means (your cable/satellite receiver) of getting the content to your television? I understand the mobile element; watching HBO content on your phone or tablet when on the go. However, if you are camped out in your living room, what do you gain by having HBO from two different devices? Help me out, I’m sure I’m missing something.

  8. jcm- I don’t think you’re missing anything. I think Chucky’s point is that existing HBO subscribers could potentially get access here to back-catalog content in high definition. Presumably it would be a better PQ experience than the one offered via HBO Go on a PC or tablet.

  9. Well I guess if you are an existing HBO customer that has an interest in back catalog content, that may or may not be delivered in HD, it could be a nice to have. However, unless I am missing something or more is going to be delivered, I don’t see this moving the OTT, a la carte yardstick much, if any.

  10. Well at least Crackle won’t be tied to an existing subscription. Hopefully the channel is better done than the Roku implementation.

  11. “what do you gain by having HBO from two different devices? Help me out, I’m sure I’m missing something.”

    Back catalog.

    The entire volume of indie cinema talent in fiction features and docs moved from to HBO en masse about a decade ago. It’s where all the good stuff is beyond superhero franchises, family drivel, and bodily function comedy. Educated audiences with dollars to spend above the age of 24 care, as theatrical features have stopped filling their needs.

    HBO aggressively windows it’s original programming, and often restricts available on Blu-Ray. HBO Go on lean-back would change that equation. I’d happily take the back catalog in “good enough” PQ, even as I locally cache the new stuff via TiVo in higher quality.

  12. Great piece Mari.

    @jcm – as Chucky noted there is a whole lot more HBO available via my iPads HBO Go app than via my FIOS on-demand. It’s a much prettier, more intuitive interface too.

    That said, I suspect non-subscriber HBO Go via Xbox would be a niche product: the majority will still get their HBO off their STBs because it’s easier. HBO may also have rights issues to negotiate if they go that route too.

  13. After looking over the HBO GO catalog, I went ahead and added HBO to my cable service and downloaded the HBO GO to my iPad. The quantity and quality of content looks good. Hopefully the Xbox implementation is well done.

  14. My original Xbox 360 lasted one month on Battlefield Mec. Gamestop bumped me up to the 1st Elite series the next year. That machine puts out noise.

    Do you really think the Xbox can handle more hours of daily tv use, on top of the hardcore gamer use?

  15. I for one don’t use my XBoxes (or PS3s) for gaming. While I occasionally play a game on a PS3, I primarily use both platforms as media hubs. In that capacity I haven’t found the XBoxes to be loud enough to be distracting. Louder than the PS3 slim, but not too bad.

  16. For cable subscribers, HBO GO is the best deal out there. I’m looking forward to the lean back implementation. However, not on my 360 but on a Roku, Apple TV, WDTV, etc.

  17. Why the other devices over the Xbox, Dave? To me it represents the most complete platform at this time. A very good UI (and getting even better in the near future); upcoming integrated search across all channels; multiple controller options (love Kinect and looking forward to getting the Xbox Companion app on my HD7 WP); and a hearty content lineup (Netflix, Hulu Plus, ESPN and Zune) about to get even better.

    I would be interested to see if/when Apple TV gets HBO GO. They certainly need to add more apps/channels; they seem to be lagging competitors in the availabily of content. Regarding Roku, as I have noted previously, they really need to quit focusing on the terrible, content deprived niche channels and focus on polishing the UI and improving the user experience.

  18. Bigger question is how do cable providers explain why the people paying them an extra $30 month for HBO and Showtime are getting a far inferior experience, including a far more limited selection, on their set top box versus an app on a 3rd party device that requires them to purchase a subscription via the cable provider.

  19. Alan,

    Good question. Of course given how awful the VOD interface is on any provider I’ve ever seen, I’m not sure that the fact that HBO has a larger back catalog than Xfinity is the first time the ‘inferior product on the cable box’ issue will have come up.

    In fact just to say it plainly, PERHAPS something like HBO lean back might just start to force cable companies to rethink their model of controlling the hardware, controlling the software, so tightly given that its produced such a sub-standard experience. People certainly know that already, but as the number of outlets that simply work better for a significant percentage of normal people increase, hey maybe the dam will bust.

    Anyway, to get back to the original thread agree with Chucky that we’ll need to wait and see. What is the quality like? Is it the full HBO GO catalog? For me, same questions about the Xfinity library (since I have Tivo’s and this would be a way to get lean back access to Comcast’s VOD library that I can’t get otherwise).

    Also of course–how well is it integrated with the rest of the dashboard? Can you search for shows across multiple providers? Or does each ‘app’ launch separately like the Media Center does now? Sounds like the former from the descriptions I’ve seen, but until we see it for real I guess we won’t know.

  20. “Anyway, to get back to the original thread agree with Chucky that we’ll need to wait and see. What is the quality like?”

    For the record, I predict they’ll go the Hulu route and throttle PQ just below “good enough” for the exact same reasons that Hulu does so.

    I’d be happy to be wrong on this one, but would be moderately surprised.


    “Bigger question is how do cable providers explain why the people paying them an extra $30 month for HBO and Showtime are getting a far inferior experience, including a far more limited selection, on their set top box versus an app on a 3rd party device”

    I pay my wireline provider for the wire, not for any hardware. They sell me a nice CableCARD video multicast package, and an IP dial-tone that I can use as I please. I don’t use their hardware.

    I pay HBO with the wireline providers acting as a middleman because I value the content.

    It’s worth remembering that many wireline providers are de facto monopolies in their locales. And in more competitive metro areas, folks are free to choose their provider by the price/value of the wire.

    In short, the MSO’s sell the wire, often under monopoly conditions. They don’t need to explain anything to anyone. Even if you “cut the cord” to save money, you’ll still pay them for the IP dial-tone. They’re the railroad. Absent government regulation forcing the MSO’s to allow the rise of “virtual MSO’s” reselling the wire as happened in the ILEC/CLEC reforms during the 1990’s, there is no escape.

  21. So have they announced yet whether FiOS will have VOD on the 360? This is what I would use it for. Watching linear channels makes no since for me unless I can rew, ff, rec, etc. I have my TiVo Premieres(soon an Elite) for that. But I don’t have access to the FiOS HD VOD with the TiVos. So having it available from the 360 would be nice to supplement Netflix, VUDU, Amazon, Hulu+, and the Zune Market Place that I currently use.

  22. aaronwt,

    The announcement only mentions a selection of live TV channels for Verizon FiOS. Makes no mention of access to their on demand library.

    For Comcast it does (“enabling us to bring Xfinity On Demand to a gaming console for the first time, and Kinect’s voice and gesture controls will offer our customers an innovative way to discover and enjoy Xfinity On Demand’s huge library of top shows and movies”), in fact making it sound like it’ll provide access to their entire VOD library, or at least the subset that’s available online?

    I’d rather I could just get all this stuff from my Tivo’s but in the absence of that support (not holding my breath, though the fact that Comcast is enabling this suggests they could do it with Tivo as well), I’ll take this as a reasonable substitute. Certainly better than nothing. Hopefully HD picture quality, decent catalog, decent search support, decent UI, etc. All TBD.

    Honestly this thing is looking like the best OTT streamer client out there by a significant margin at this point. For me it has Hulu Plus, Comcast Xfinity, Netflix, HBO Go. No it doesn’t have Amazon Instant Video. Plus the ability to stream local media and other stuff like Zune music and movies and so forth. Looking better than any other options at this point, at least to my eyes.

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