Darren Waters

Can Xbox 360 fulfil its multimedia ambitions?

  • Darren Waters
  • 26 Feb 09, 14:29 GMT

Microsoft's Xbox project has long been seen as not just an attempt to own the console space but also to act as a Trojan horse, putting a device at the heart of the digital living room.

Xbox 360Ever since the first console launched it has come replete with multimedia features - from DVD and CD playback to sharing and extending content from Windows Media Centre and then Windows Vista PCs.

The Xbox has also been at the forefront of the digital delivery world, offering movies and video content over the network.

Today Microsoft announced a new partner to its Xbox Live service in the UK - NBC Universal movie are a welcome addition given the relatively limited range of content the service offers, particularly in comparison to the US version.

But have all the billions of dollars of investment and roll out of content partners been worth the effort?

Microsoft won't say how many movies have been downloaded in the UK over Xbox Live.

Neil Thompson, head of Xbox in the UK, told me: "We are certainly the biggest VOD service in front of the TV in the UK."

But that statement is being based on the number of users of Xbox Live in the UK and the size of the movie portfolio - and the statement doesn't include movie on demand services from Sky because Microsoft don't think they are comparable technologies.

Whatever the figure, the amount of movies going from the service to the screen is likely to be much lower than the video on demand viewings of movies on a subscription service like Sky or Virgin.

But Microsoft is a sizeable player in the European video on demand market, in part because it is a nascent sector.

Nick Thomas, an analyst with Forrester research, told me: "Xbox Live has been pretty smart and slick in building this service and developing the install base."

The difficulty for Microsoft is that the on demand video space is changing dramatically and it is facing increasing pressure from set-top boxes, web-based catch-up TV services and other network-enabled video on demand services.

Mr Thomas from Forrester said: "The onus is clearly on Virgin and Sky to see what they can do with there existing PVR user base."

According to Forrester Research, in the short and medium term, standalone OTT VOD offers will become increasingly available in Europe. OTT VOD basically means devices dedicated to delivering video on demand, such as Apple TV.

And the pressure is not just from hardware manufacturers - the BBC is working with BT to deliver a set of IPTV standards that could pave the way for future services.

Adobe is pushing the Open Screen Project and Yahoo is partnering with TV firms to bridge the divide between the network and the television.

At the moment the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are two of the best solutions to bridge the gap but they could find themselves competing with networked TVs and smarter set-top boxes that come with network connections as standard.

The BBC's deal with Virgin to deliver the iPlayer to a set-top box shows that web applications can find their way to the TV screen without too much hassle for the consumer and without forcing them to buy more hardware.

Mr Thompson said the addition of NBC Universal was a "broadening" of the range of content Xbox Live offers and another step in its evolution into the being the multimedia device of choice.

The success of incorporating Netflix onto Xbox Live in the US - with 1.5 billion minutes of TV and films streamed in just three months - shows just how crucial widening the portfolio and range of viewing options on the service is for the platform.

Yet there is still no sign of the iPlayer or catch-up TV services on Xbox Live, despite the fact the BBC's technology is now on the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii, as well as Virgin.

Mr Thompson said the iPlayer was "not on the slate" and "the question we have to ask is what is unique? A lot of people are accessing it through their PCs".

The very ubiquity of the iPlayer is perhaps making it less attractive to Microsoft.

But Microsoft has a number of advantages over set top box firms, Mr Thomas told me. It has a built-in user base - primarily gamers - and it has a box which can be constantly upgraded through software.

"The ability to upgrade the black box is crucial as this is a fast moving market," he said.

And Mr Thompson hinted the evolution of the Xbox 360 will continue in the coming 12 months.


  • Comment number 1.

    The reason Microsoft won't add iPlayer to the Xbox 360 is because it won't make money for them, plain and simple.

  • Comment number 2.

    Microsoft's ignoring of iPlayer is amazingly dim.

    Movies aren't unique either, and are available for a lot less in more flexible ways from other providers.

    Meanwhile given Silverlight for Xbox must be easy to build for and it already has WMDRM support it'd be trivial to get most of the UK broadcaster's catch up services on.

    Neil Thompson doesn't really get selling online media. That has been apparent for a while.

  • Comment number 3.

    So let me get this straight, Microsoft don't want the iPlayer because you can get it elsewhere?

    Well considered the lack good quality of unique content on xbox live in the UK, consumers are likely to do just that. Go elsewhere.

    PS, I own an Xbox360. So this isn't just a sony fanboy dissing a rival console.

  • Comment number 4.

    The Xbox 360 absolutely pales in comparison to the PlayStation3 in terms of being the multimedia centre of your living room.

    Obviously BluRay is a big part of that (and those who say "and don't say BluRay" can pipe down...)

    Then there's PlayTV - OK it's not perfect and a proper series link feature is much needed, but it's still pretty darn good (especially when viewed from afar with a PSP).

    The iPlayer now works well on the PS3.

    It's dead easy to stream content from other computers in the house, as well as store huge amounts of music/video on the console itself (I installed a 320GB hard drive in mine, it only cost me £50).

    Add to that the physical appearance (the slot load is great) and user interface of the PS3 compared to the 360 and you have an all-round much better and well thought-out product.

    The 360 just feels cheap and nasty, urgh!

  • Comment number 5.

    Not sure I believe the statements about Xbox and iPlayer on the BBC site.

    Let's face it. the iPlayer is a closed system.
    Only the BBC can produce the player. No-one else can. Heck, if Microsoft did that, then everyone would be complaining.

    But that's why we don't even have iPlayer for Windows Media Centre or iPlayer for Windows Mobile - despite there being far more of the latter in the UK than iPhones.

  • Comment number 6.

    @CompactDistance I think that's partly it. But remember adding quality services have brand value, as well as simplicty implications.
    Look at Virgin Media - they have added iPlayer.

    For Xbox it is more about control I think - plus the fact Microsoft don't work at the same speed as the iPlayer team who are rolling out new features and implementation at breakneck speed.

  • Comment number 7.

    I find the entire concept of using the Xbox 360 for watching movies laughable, who wants to watch a movie on a device that sounds like a vacuum cleaner? I use my PS3 for watching Blu-Ray and DVD discs, and I don't find it's fan noise intrusive, you only notice when once you power it down. I have only ever watched two DVD's on the 360, it's noise was a severe distraction and the quality of DVD playback was poor on my 58" Plasma, maybe it doesn't look so bad on 42" and smaller displays.

    .. and no, I don't have a bad egg, we have two Xbox's and one them is a third time replacement. The only reason we keep it is for Halo 3, Xbox live, and that on them is hacked, i.e. it can run .....

  • Comment number 8.

    The 360 might well have pretentions to be at the heart of the digital living room but I know very few Xbox owners who make use of these multimedia functions.

    For a start it is only the recent generation of Xbox bundles that have had large enough hard drives to make downloading large media files a viable proposition.

    It is now possible to upgrade your console by purchasing these 60 and 120 gig hard drives separately. You can then transfer any game data and save games and media etc to the new drive.

    However, MS's copy protection means that after this you must be connected to xbox live to play any games or content you have previously paid for. This means if your Live connection fails - as it frequently does - or you simply wish to play offline for whatever reason, many of the games/movies bought before the transfer become unplayable. There are a lot of users who are being put off by this. Others, including myself, object to paying 100 pounds for something that they might feel should have come with their Xbox in the first place.

    On the subject of the Windows Media centre, many have found the connection between PC and the 360 to be problematic - problems that can only be solved by those with an advanced level of computer literacy. Your average Xbox/PC owner does not know about "opening ports" and tinkering with the advanced options of their firewall etc.

    And I have to agree with CompactDistance - many game developers have been at war with MS over their insistence on charging big money for even the smallest piece of downloadable content. So in the case of the iPlayer it seems likely that they believe it will hurt sales of TV programs and movies and therefore lose them money.

  • Comment number 9.

    It's all very well asking for the iplayer but with updates rolling out for the iplayer tenfold, wouldn't it make sense to wait for a "full" version before implementing it?

    That would have been like adding xbox live to the original xbox but you can only play in your own country as it isn't ready.

    Also, with BT being partners with microsoft for IPTV (WHEN MICROSOFT WHEN!?!) then it would make it a greater VOD capable machine than the fancy set top boxes

  • Comment number 10.

    Apparently Microsoft wanted to replace the UI of BBC iPlayer and use their own.

    Sony get around this because PS3 has a web browser so the UI is upto the owner. Xbox has no browser and relies on an integrated "application"... and that's when MS feel they can throw their weight around about the UI.

  • Comment number 11.

    Never mind that - I can't believe that the Beeb have printed an opinion piece on privacy by some bloke from BT. That'd be the same BT who are intending to spy on their users by using Phorm...

    Any chance of you growing some and challenging BT on this?

  • Comment number 12.

    On top of the gimicky user interface and lack of truly great content, the biggest problem the Xbox has is the noise it makes. I used mine as a DVD player for a time and it was unbearable. Not such a promblem when gaming, but for watching films or listening to background music it's horrendous.

    I know it's not possible for every situation, but I substituted mine for a DVI to HDMI cable plugged into my laptop. Whisper quiet full HD content, i-Player (et al), internet radio.

    The Xbox feels more dated each time I switch it on.

  • Comment number 13.

    The PS3 does everything the 360 does, The video download store has successfully launched in the US bringing with it TV programs and movies for download.
    The video store is coming to Europe this year, and in addition will offer completely free streaming of a full catalogue of music videos.

    The real trojan horse is the Blu-ray drive in the PS3, it is expected that there will be over 100m Blu-ray movies sold in 2009.

    There are many, many competitors to Microsofts digital plans (including the PayStation Video Store, amongst many others) which will prevent them getting to big a market share.

  • Comment number 14.

    There are three reasons why my xbox will never be a hub in our living room.

    The first is that as a film buff the lack of blu-ray is quite crucial to me in terms of a media centre.

    The second, though it might be just me, is that my xbox is pretty noisy and so can be quite distracting if watching a quiet film or listening to some quieter music. We have a separate DVD player for that.

    The third is the hard drive size, as although my xbox has a 120 GB hard drive, any one with a decent size media collection will fill that pretty quickly. Whilst with the PS3 you can quite easily replace standard hard drive with a normal PC drive, which given the cheapness of 1.5TB hard drives means you can upgrade cheaply when you fill the hard drive. Microsoft make you buy their own hardware, which is expensive.

    I don't even know much about the software and networking issues mentioned above, but these 3 hardware related faults are enough to prevent me from seeing the xbox as a media centre, something that I think the PS3 is much more suited for (I don't own one btw). Unfortunately, these faults are fundamental to the machine and cannot be corrected with cheap fixes, only when the next generation of xbox comes out.

    Despite all that I still love my xbox (in a platonic way of course) and am off to play some CoD 5!

  • Comment number 15.

    I hope that XBOX360 can meet its ambitions...
    ~Dennis Junior~

  • Comment number 16.

    You can get iPlayer on XBox, but only the original XBox console. Modded with Xbox Media Centre (XBMC) a script has been out for some time. Originally it was used to download the iPod quick time files but this loop hole kept getting closed by the Beeb and then subsequent the code had to change. Eventually a streaming version was released but required Flash to be incorporated into the XBMC build (Atlantis if you are interested.)

    It works a treat and it is great to watch shows on television rather than on the computer.

  • Comment number 17.

    No, not with the current hardware.

    The noise! It's simply not lounge/DVD friendly due to the loud noises is makes. It has a great new interface and will talk to any other device, but it's let down by the basic hardware design.

    We also have a PS3 and that has Blu-ray, so MS will have to upgrade the Xbox to compete in my opinion. Why would you currently choose an Xbox over PS3 as a media hub??

  • Comment number 18.

    I dont understand what it is about iplayer anyway? It's a pile of rubbish as far as I am concerned. I moved over to the USA a few months back and let me tell you that what the Xbox 360 has is far superior to anything the PS3 has to offer. As far as I am concerned there is no need for iplayer, its outdated and lagging behind. Half the time the BBC never repeated the programs I wanted to see anyway and about the best thing available was Top Gear! Probably the best program BBC make at the moment. If you dont agree, dont worry about it, I certainly wont.

  • Comment number 19.

    The statement "...Microsoft has a number of advantages over set top box firms, ... a box which can be constantly upgraded through software." is not entirely correct. Surely, XBox360 has an established user base, but Set Top Boxes are software upgradable, too.

    The console's hardware capabilities, along with advanced software libraries, could be considered competitive advantages, assuming that Microsoft and its partners take advantage of them, to deliver better products and services.

  • Comment number 20.

    I can already view Iplayer content on my xbox (just download to your windows media PC and using your network stream to your vanilla xbox). Still I'm a little puzzled why any film/movie fan would use a multi purpose device as a hub - these devices are very inferior to dedicated hardware (blue ray or dvd). They are primarily for games after all. Additionally when relatively recent movies can be had on DVD for £3 - £7 why pay similar money for a one of rental?

  • Comment number 21.

    A bit out of topic but I don't understand why people want to use a console to play anything apart from games? As I have never tried to use my PS3 to watch any BD movie or even DVDs. I use my computer to watch them (DVDs and iPlayer) instead.

    I am more interest to in what the Nvidia new chipset brings. If they can bring them onto a pico-itx factor as the reference board. I will definitely buy a few of them, and some BD drives if I wish, put them onto/behind every TV in my house and inside my car.

    Did I miss something as I don't see any coverage on Nvidia ion reference board and Nvidia/Intel court case? or they are not important enough to even put on the blog?

  • Comment number 22.

    My 360 sits on a table in my room waiting for the day I actually turn it on again...

    ...Since I bought a laptop that I can play the games I want on I see no need for my 360.

    This new "multimedia" push by Microsoft isn't going to change that either.

    But I'm sure they will make their money out of this, there are enough "woot! this is great!" 360 owners out there for them to...

  • Comment number 23.

    From reading the comments, it looks like my opinion is shared with a few people.

    At first, I thought I was being pedantic when I was reading this thinking 'I'll never watch a movie on my XBox360, it's far too noisy'. But I'm not the only one!

    That is the main reason my XBox is only ever used for games/music (mostly metal, I can't imagine it being much use for gentle/quiet music). When I bought my XBox, I thought I would be able to throw away my DVD player, and remove some clutter, but found it to be impractical as it's so noisy.

    I can't really see the XBox being a better multimedia centre than a computer in any way at all, except maybe that the initial outlay is cheaper. Also PCs can be upgraded easily, and the XBox storage is fairly limited (120GB isn't very much when you are storing movies/TV/game content downloads) and expensive.

    I've never purchased a movie from XBox Live for this reason, and I never will. However, I do often download free movie trailers, free game trailers and other free videos (I don't mind the noise so much if I haven't paid for the content).

    I use my laptop to watch on-demand TV from 4OD (haven't tried BBC iPlayer yet), and I just plug it into my TV with an HDMI cable.

    I'll agree that the PS3 has an advantage (though I don't own one) in that it plays Blu-Ray discs. I can see people deciding between a PS3 and an XBox360 thinking 'well I get a Blu-Ray player with the PS3', and buying that instead. The reason I got an XBox over a PS3 was that the XBox has Gears of War and Halo 3. If I didn't know the games, I'd have probably looked into a PS3 more seriously.

  • Comment number 24.

    If i remember rightly, all cosoles had the option from the BBC to have the iPlayer, but SONY, and Microsoft wanted to have full advantage of using it on the system but the BBC said no, Nintendo however said yeah not a problem we'll stick it on and we'll leave it alone' basically.

    Lucky for me (PS3 user) a PS3 owner thought 'why can the Wii have Iplayer and not me'? So he created the code for the PS3 to mask it so we can watch it on an unofficial page.

    The PS3 is far superior to that of the Xbox, call me a fanboy but it's true.

    ''But Microsoft has a number of advantages over set top box firms, Mr Thomas told me. It has a built-in user base - primarily gamers - and it has a box which can be constantly upgraded through software.

    "The ability to upgrade the black box is crucial as this is a fast moving market," he said.''

    the PS3 also receives Firmware updates.

  • Comment number 25.

    Once again I ask what all the fuss is about the i-player? The BBC programs have gone down the pan, the people pay for outdated not what they want products!

    Take a look at what abc offers and then you will see what iplayer offers is poor in comparison. Sorry only available in the U.S! In the UK there are too many restrictions on what can be watched, no doubt it has something to do with the E.U. Jut as they have ruined the workplace with all their health and safety regulations!

    Post #24, you are kidding yourself mate! The PS3 will go down in history as the console that promised everything but delivered nothing! I am a programmer and you will see over the next few years that Sony has failed and will conitinue to fail on what it promised.

    You will not see graphics that distance it (PS3) from the Xbox 360. You mention the new killzone game, well let me tell you Microsoft will release games over the coming year that will equal or surpass it. Then Sony will do the same and vice versa, you know why, because these consoles are basically the same in the performance they give. The same guys at IBM worked on both sets of chips and made sure they would basically compete with each other. Think about it, if you had vested interest in two products would you not want to make good money from both of them?

  • Comment number 26.

    @ 25

    so your telling me that games like Killzone 2, Gran Turismo, Uncharted 2, and Heavy Rain can run on the 360?

    Keep dreaming

  • Comment number 27.

    @ 26

    Yes I am saying exactly that, none of what you mentioned are special in the way you are trying to make out. Stop deluding yourself and hanging on the fake promises that Sony kept making before the launch of the PS3. The PS3 is never going to be what Sony said it was, you will realise this when its '10-year life span' (LOL) is over!

    The PC can destroy both M$ and $ony's machines in terms of graphics if you want to take it down that route. However, you know that graphics dont make games, and this is ultimately what all the consoles are, games machines. The PS3 is not going to have this domination that $ony fanboys think, forget it, it wont happen day dreamerZZZZZZZ. The market share will be big for Nintendo, then M$ followed by $ony.

    Let me also ask you this, do you really think that bluray is going to have the affect that DVD had on the market? Just take a look at the way music downloads have affected music cd sales! This same process is happening to movies and year-by-year you will see downloads eating into DVD/Bluray sales. This will have a direct affect on the next consoles that are released, with $ony expecting to not have to spend so much money bringing a new media standard into the market. Things will not be the way $ony hope though, because downloading /internet connectivity and advanced memory cards will be the way. Memory Cards? Yes, the advances in this technology from companies such as SD will allow huge capacities and faster data transfer rates allowing games and other media types to run efficiently from them. Wait and see.

  • Comment number 28.

    Well, I use my Xbox 360 to watch TV and movies I have on my computer via the TVersity software, as do the majority of people I know with 360s. In my opinion the fan noise is minimal when not playing games, and since it's not from a DVD the drive is silent too. It's great and any downsides are surely outweighed by the ease of watching on your big screen.

    So, I for one would value an iplayer capability for the 360, and I think Neil Thompson is well wide of the mark to say that people would prefer to use it via their PCs or laptops.

  • Comment number 29.

    The problems for microsoft are huge and very visible, first of all nobody is buying the Xbox 360 to use as a media centre and it's largest userbase is the lower of age bracket of teenagers who do not care much for the multimedia aspects of computers and consoles.

    This gives it a huge and distinct disadvantage compared to it's rival Sony who has created the Playstation 3, which has recieved amazing reviews from the most respected audio/video magazines and journals from around the world. Most of these magazines and journals actually went as far to say it is the best Blu-Ray player on the planet that can be bought for under 1000 US Dollars.

    The reason for this is that Microsoft rushed the Xbox 360 and what was released could only be described as the 'Xbox 78' as it is very far off the mark compared to the PS3 which is being bought by people everywhere who are interested and not interested in games but also want the media aspect. The User Interface of the PS3 also looks extremely professional and has been given awards while the 360 user interface looks very cluttered, too high contrast for audio/video fans and has a very childish appeal with it's Wii-like avatars.

    If an Xbox is to at least try and compete against Sony and the other comnpanies in this area, then Microsoft can not be under any illusions... their new target audience are nowhere near as forgiving as PC/gamer enthusiats and they not only have zero loyalty for a company that rushes it's products but they wouldn't even bother considering the idea of purchasing that companies products when far superior alternatives are avauilable... pricing is not so much an issue in this particular industry.

    Microsoft is now stepping out of it's comfort zone and entering a realm that Sony, Humax, Panasonic, Pioneer etc are far far stronger and no matter how much money Microsoft has in it's bank (a constant argument for how great microsoft apparently is), the basic underlying fact is video/audiophiles do not care for the american corporation as they are a nothing entity to them until Microsoft make the biggest effort to change thier policies so that they are in line with the other big electronics maufacturers.

    This is not something I see Microsoft are willing to do as they have not changed their policies for anyone, not even the courts of the EU who simply have to keep on fining them billions of British Pounds due to not follwing the court ruling of the various cases they have been called to defend. This stance that Microsoft has always taken will lead to the dramatic failure of their media centre ventures.


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