Fire up your Xbox 360 at some point today and you'll be prompted to download something that, like it or not, will have an indelible impact on the way you interact with the console. For all the attention given the new visual interface—named after that thing you take to work and resembling the sliding orthogonal tiles that comprise Windows 8's new tablet-angled overlay—the biggest change, if you're also using Kinect, involves the spoken word.
By wiring Microsoft's Bing search engine into the "how I get stuff" process, you'll now be able to find and access content with just a few verbal commands. Say "Xbox, Bing, Iron Man Two," for instance, and the system will search across multiple catalogues, dishing up a list of content related to the film Iron Man 2, including the option to buy it through various stores (Microsoft's Zune, Walmart's Vudu) or directly launch it through a player like Netflix (assuming you're a subscriber).
In fact getting what you want, from concept to execution, should be significantly faster than it was before, having to punch buttons on a gamepad to navigate and enter phrases using the 360's virtual keyboard. Forget Kinect's "you are the controller" hand interface, which generally takes longer than a gamepad as you fumble to wake Kinect up and wrestle the pointer around the screen, you can go from the movie or TV show you're after to a bunch of related stuff, all the way to watching it, without lifting a controller.
I haven't played with the update yet (what I thought was an early access code to download the beta turned out to be a beta application form, still pending) but I did have a chance to chat with Microsoft representatives about it last week. Their presentation involved a lot of buzzword-laced talk about "ramping up content choices" and consolidating content (someone even slipped the word "magical" in, referring to Kinect), all of it underlining a "strategy to reinvent TV." And the company trotted out more performance metrics: The company's sold more than 57 million xbox sold globally, has over 35 million Xbox Live users globally, says the average player spends two hours a day on Xbox Live, and notes that 40 percent of Xbox Live gamers spend 30 hours a month watching TV on the Xbox 360 today. It sounds impressive, and one some level probably is. The Xbox 360 is still a set-top box, mind you, but it's infinitely more versatile than anything sold by cable or satellite TV providers.
Microsoft says the TV industry is in transition, stating that it's "gone from a closed system managed by a relatively small set of companies to a much more open system, delivering substantial additional capabilities and experiences and options." Microsoft wants to channel everything through the Xbox 360, no surprise, claiming that it's "completely open to what sources that content comes from."
What about content unbundling, the shift away from all-inclusive cable TV-style packages toward an app-like pay-per-channel approach? Microsoft was understandably coy about this, when I asked, alluding to the byzantine legal arrangements between content providers, publishers, and portals currently preventing individual channels from appearing as services you could subscribe to discretely. But the company also understands that that's the trend, that consumers want a certain amount of unbundling, and that the shift toward Internet-driven content consolidation is well underway.
Will the Xbox 360 be the frontrunner for any of that? Voice-driven interfaces are popping up everywhere. Imagine a future Android tablet or the iPad 3 or 4, as powerful as any game console, wirelessly streaming video to your 50- or 60-inch screen and using Siri to do business (or, alternatively, imagine a more Siri-like natural language voice interface on your Xbox 360). At risk of oversimplifying, you have creators and consumers getting wrestled around by distribution middleware. That middleware's in flux, and Microsoft's Xbox 360 dashboard update today, another move on the chessboard.