Microsoft Is Finally Taking Aim At The Cable Box

Game consoles are in an enviable position: right under millions of televisions. The popular line is that the big three – Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony – are dinosaurs choking on the smoke of a red hot mobile gaming meteor. That’s not true. Nintendo has already sold 3.91 million units as of September 2013 and the Xbox 360 sold 79 million. That’s a lot of electronics under a lot of TVs.

Each of these devices has attempted to supplant a single rival, the cable box, with lackluster results. The Wii U allows for a sort of watered-down TV control using the Wiimote but the Xbox One is one of the first devices to offer HDMI pass through and a built-in TV guide for any provider. And, if I were a cable provider, I’d be very afraid. I sat down with Microsoft yesterday to see the new system and came away impressed.

At launch Xbox’s TV functionality is very limited. The Kinect works as an IR blaster and controls almost any set top box using remote commands. You can pause and rewind live shows but you can’t record them or really control your DVR directly from the Xbox (they say that functionality is coming soon which may point to some trouble with partners). To do the things most of us do with cable boxes – play back recorded TV – you’re out of luck with the One… right now.

But what the One does best is offer favorite channels and programs. By offering an embedded TV guide, the One supplants the Comcasts and Dishes of the world and creates a layer over live TV. You can select your favorite channels and just scroll through those, you can go to certain channels with voice commands, and you can pin movies and shows to your dashboard for easy access. Not everything works perfectly yet, but the direction is clear: the One is a mediator between the cable box and your desires and, given enough access, it could supplant the “live” channel entirely.

The thing that struck me during our demo is how easy it would be for the One to replace, say, the HBO cable channel with HBO Go. I could also see a day when cable channels could go all IP and embed themselves right into the program guide on an a la carte basis. Microsoft already has channel apps – apps that supply certain entertainment like NFL games. What would happen when all of your channel apps replace actual cable channels? It can and it will happen.

Again it is very premature to say that the Xbox One is replacing the cable box. The software is still wonky and the use case, at least for folks with home theater gear and a smart remote, is limited. However if space is at a premium I could definitely see passing my cable box through the Xbox and getting everything done that way. I could also see a day when the arguably powerful guts of the Xbox pushes the cable box out entirely and simply slurps up Internet video. While that day won’t be soon, if I were a cable company exec I’d be watching my back. After all, Blockbuster was once a media giant as well and look where that got them.