The unified Microsoft platform

April 7, 2013

Remote control

I feel that Microsoft has really tried to push the unified platform that is Xbox. They’ve tried to bring together multiple devices and form factors like phones, tablets, TV-console and computers.

Ever since Windows Phone 8 was released I’ve wanted to actually see how everything fits together and until lately I haven’t been able to because I haven’t had an Xbox, which is arguably the heart of Microsoft’s entertainment business. After I had hooked up the Xbox one of the first things I downloaded for my phone was SmartGlass, which is sort of an extension to the Xbox in your phone. Sadly the app left lots to be desired.

SmartGlass

It’s an app that is available for both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, it acts like an alternative “smart” remote control. The problem is that it’s no good as a remote control. You move around the xbox interface by flicking on a gray background, and there’s icons for the mostly used buttons (X, B, Y) and if you tap on the screen you press the A button. The problem with this implementation is that flicking is usually something you do on a phone when you want to go the next item in a series of items or if you want scroll, but as far as I know, there’s no phone out there that uses flicking as the main navigation. I’d rather see them implement a cursor in the Xbox where the phone acts like a touchpad. Another flaw with the current implementation is when you want to enter text in the Xbox, I intuitively thought that a keyboard would pop up on the phone, but no, instead you had to flick through the alphabet on the TV screen, which was a real pain.

SmartGlass screenshots

They’ve also pushed on the integration between the phone and the Xbox in games. Where the game can send content to the phone. E.g. you find a document in-game, the document is then sent to your phone where you can read through it more comfortably. In theory this is a nice idea, sadly, as the phone goes in to standby mode the connection with the Xbox is lost, and no data can be pushed. The only game that I have tested this on is Halo 4, and the only information that is displayed as I play is my stats in multiplayer on how far I’ve progressed in campaign mode, I’m not really sure if you could even call this a real time integration.

Xbox controller

And the last thing that I found was that you can start recent apps from the phone. But seeing how hard it is to navigate the Xbox from the phone, it really is easier to just grab the game controller and start the app from the real dashboard.

Windows Phone 8 with Windows 8 and the Xbox

I bought Windows 8 the same day as it became available. And the first thing I downloaded was the Windows Phone app for metro, sadly it didn’t support Windows Phone 7.5 that I had at the time, so I waited for Windows Phone 8 to be released. When I finally picked up the HTC 8x I tried the app again. I then discovered that the app was quite useless, you couldn’t really do anything with the phone besides transferring items on and off (which you can also do through the windows explorer, albeit a lot more effective).

What I really wanted was an app that I can control my phone through, and this also goes for the Xbox. Say for example that I get a text message to my phone, wouldn’t it be great if Windows could notify my on the computer that I’ve received a message, even better if I could also read the message and reply on the message through my computer instead of having to pick out my phone from my pocket.

Xbox Incoming Phone Call

And something I’d really love to be able to do is if I was playing a game on my Xbox and somebody was calling me, the Xbox would notify my about my incoming call and who the caller is, I could then choose to answer the phone through the Xbox and talk through the headset. This would mean I wouldn’t have to detach from the game, and I wouldn’t have to quit out of an online match just to fetch my phone.

I would also want the ability to control my phone from the computer, where I could bring up a remote-desktop-like-application where I can browse through my phone’s apps and phone book and in essence do everything I can do whilst actually navigating my phone in my hand.

Media availability and contextual menus

I’ve always found it quite frustrating that you can’t browse normal network shares with the Xbox. In order to stream media from the computer you need to use Windows Media Player and share the media through that application, this is probably not a problem for most users, but say that you have a file server that either runs Linux or a flavor of Windows Server where both lack Windows Media Player, now the only way for the xbox to be able to fetch the media, you need to either install a virtual machine with one of the consumer Windows operating systems or install a third party DLNA streamer like Twonky Media, and I feel that both alternatives are bad considering they should be able to implement file-share-browsing on the Xbox.

And to expand on the idea of streaming data to the Xbox, it would be great if they’d implement a contextual menu on different file types where you can choose to send items to the Xbox. For example, as you’re browsing the web on your computer you find an interesting clip on Youtube, now in order to watch the clip on the Xbox you’d just have to right click on the page and click on a button that says “Send to Xbox”, the link to the Youtube video would then be sent over the network to the Xbox, and the clip would start playing in either the integrated internet explorer or in the Youtube app. This should also work on different files that you have on your computer, already today there’s a sub menu in Windows File Explorer where you can send a file to different locations, like the desktop, wouldn’t it be great if you could send an mp3 or a jpg to your xbox and listen to it or view it on your TV?

Paid membership

In it’s current state, you need to pay for additional features on your Xbox through a subscription plan called Gold Membership. The only thing you get from this subscription is things that arguably should be free from the get go, like playing an online game or using the Nnetflix app (Which you already need to pay a different monthly fee for). I do understand why Microsoft has opted for this, and I understand that they probably earn quite a lot of money on this scheme, so I’m not going to go in on the details if it’s good or not. But I can’t understand why we have to view ads on the Xbox dashboard? I mean we already pay for the service, why would we want to see advertisement?

Xbox dashboard - My pins

I’d like to be able to remove the ad-blocks or apps or whatever they’re called and replace them with my own favorites. The current iteration of the Xbox dashboard already has a “pin this app” functionality, the bad thing with this is that when something gets “pinned” it’s actually added to a sub menu on the first dashboard screen called “My pins”. In other words, you pin an app from a sub menu to another sub menu, makes sense right?

Conclusion

All the Microsoft products work somewhat well as stand alone devices, and while I sometimes disagree with how things work, I understand them. But I feel like Microsoft really has a great chance to build a cross-platform system that people could really find useable, but as is, the inter connectivity between devices are really bad, and at times feel like they only been smacked-on so they can check off a list of supports, while not really thinking about the usability. I really hope that the next iteration of Windows devices will be tightly integrated with each other.

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