Xbox One’s uphill convergence battle

Microsoft promotes the Xbox One as an all-in-one solution for your living room needs: gaming, film, cable TV, even home exercise. But the Xbox One leans on convergence to a fault. It’s a console whose overstuffed feature set, for now, has left it vulnerable on both price and its user interface. While core gamers kept sales strong over the holidays I’m concerned that the console will have a rough future with a mainstream audience.

Its convergence problems start with its $500 price tag. Devices that already carry the same feature set of core streaming services (e.g. Netflix, Hulu Plus) as the Xbox One are $100 or less. Granted, the Xbox One adds on high end gaming, voice and gesture UI integration along with limited cable TV control, but those additions for $400 are a hard sell for everyday consumers. And I doubt we’ll see a price drop anytime soon; the console requires high-end expensive gaming hardware to compete with Sony’s PS4 over next gen gaming. The Kinect, one of the Xbox’s purported main innovations, drives the price higher. Microsoft tacks on additional fees as well: a $60/year Xbox Live subscription is required for most functionality, a policy unheard of on competing tech devices like the PS4 or Roku.

Convergence across diverse activities also adds complexity to the Xbox One’s UI, an extra hurdle for mainstream adoption. Just compare the console’s preferred interaction method – voice – against interaction on competing media and tech devices. From my own testing, Xbox One voice commands largely work. But it still feels like a feature trying to find its footing; about 20% of the time I have to repeat myself or a command takes me in an unwanted direction.

80% reliability is a good start, but that’s 15% short of what it should be given the competition’s astounding performance. Consider the 1 to 1 touch interaction on a modern iOS or stock Android smartphone or tablet. Or the tried and true keyboard and mouse inputs on a desktop or laptop. Even buttons on a remote control for the cable box. These aforementioned devices “just work.” Granted, Microsoft’s voice technology is new and will improve, and there’s a game controller for backup navigation. But historically users outside a tech or gaming enthusiast base show little patience for new input technologies that work unreliably.

Then there’s added Xbox One functionality that’s puzzling. Things like:

  • “Snapping” an application like a web page or Skype alongside the right side of the screen seems like it would be used in a rare scenario.
  • Minority Report style Kinect gestures to move around the UI that are slow and awkward.
  • A Windows 8-like interface that’s visually striking, but occasionally confusing with a menu of very similarly sized and colored boxes doing different things.

Microsoft would argue that ambition takes time and that the Xbox One’s rough patches will be smoothed over soon. And I want the Xbox One to succeed; strong competition from Microsoft’s console leads to better technology from Sony, Nintendo, Apple and Google. However, other living room tech isn’t standing still. Rumors suggest the next Apple TV iteration will be ambitious. Sony’s PS4 runs select multi-platform games at higher resolutions with a more straightforward, gaming focused UI, which could appeal to the core gaming market. Drive can only take a console so far; with Microsoft’s missteps on price and UI, it’s unclear if the company can deliver on its promise.