Microsoft, the XBox and Blu-ray

Blu-ray - it's not for the likes of YOU, Xbox 360-ers. Or so it seems...

'If you wanted it, we would have made it by now' - MS

As an XBox 360 owner, I was particularly pleased to add to the other day’s buzz about a new Blu-ray add-on drive being developed by Microsoft in partnership with Samsung and Toshiba. The drive was reported to have an estimate shipping price of $150. Even though that would probably translate Limey-side directly into pounds, it was still good news. Microsoft listening to their customers? Microsoft abandoning their own out-of-touch roadmap and getting with the program?

Redmond have so often been in this position (RAM capacity, the internet, the Zune, online documents…shall I go on?), and it would have been pretty much the first time Bill’s company might have swallowed its pride, written off lost development-time and actually adjusted itself to market demands.

Trouble is, MS don’t seem to want to follow anymore. Damn man, they’re tired of eating Apple’s dust in terms of innovation. Just one time, they want to look at the competition from the wing-mirror instead of the windshield. To boot, their  dominant PC OS market-share no longer brings the comfort it did as Linux creeps its inexorable way into the laptop market and twin rivals Chrome and Firefox eye up the browser market hungrily.

Thus – if you can believe your ears listening to a conversation* between Aaron Greenberg, Microsoft’s Group Product Manager for the Xbox 360 and a blogger called Major Nelson (apparently the director of Programming for Xbox Live) – reports of a Blu-ray drive for the 360 are erroneous.

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“We have no plans to integrate Blu-ray into the Xbox experience.” says Greenberg. “We also believe that the future’s digital, and that’s why we’ve invested in a massive library of entertainment content.”

So it seems that Microsoft are willing to wait out what they see as the short reign of the last-ever consumer movie-disc format and leapfrog movie consumption into the ‘broadband ether’ via their Xbox Live Marketplace.

…despite the fact that network bandwidth is already becoming logjammed with torrenters (They’ll ‘deal with those guys later’, is the attitude I’m guessing here) and that here in the UK the huge popularity of the BBC’s iPlayer alone has had service providers calling for a chunk of the TV licence fee, and for new and expensive infrastructure that will take years to finance and years to complete. And despite the fact that people like owning a (legal) copy of a movie without having to show anyone their papers if they want to watch it sometime.

Well MS are probably right – a large part of the future for movie acquisition probably is digital. But since they’ll still be Apple’s Johnny-Come-Lately gimp upon mass take-up of their newly-acquired entertainment content over the net (not to mention offering such services in the wake of other cannier and more innovative rival providers), I hope for their sake that they have bought their new crop of films and shows under a very long-term and very exclusive contract; because only a position of force majeure will deliver them the market they are aiming at; if Sony responds to the recent XBox price-cuts in kind, MS can’t rely on a ubiquitous domestic presence to gain market-share.

In any case, MS would probably only enjoy 3-4 years of dominance before the Supreme Court and the European Union would tell them to play nice and share again, if one can rely on history in these matters.

In the meantime, MS seem determined to gamble on a continuing lack of a ‘killer’ domestic Blu-ray player combining with a ‘killer’ Blu-ray movie release in order to suppress a market that many hesitate to enter at current prices, buying time for their digital movie revolution on the XBox.

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If you factor in the cost of a suitable HD-ready screen that’s bigger than a magazine and any damn good, it’s not actually the dumbest gamble of Redmond’s career, on the face of it. The trouble is that all indications suggest that the first two of these issues will resolve themselves in 2009, leaving only the thorny matter of the screen itself, now a demonised avatar for ‘conspicuous consumption’ in the UK press (which particularly hates to see unemployed people watching them).

But standards may lower along with prices if the current economic climate stretches into 2009 (as it certainly seems set to), and the advent of a £/$99 (the exchange rate not applying to electronic goods, it seems) Blu-ray player that’s updateable, performs well and doesn’t blow up in 3 months will truly change everything. At that point, low/mid-range consumers will figure that they’ll get the working player now and the sexier HD screen later.

And maybe, at that point, Microsoft will licence someone to make the Blu-ray add-on that they should have made available for Christmas this year, the same way that the HD-DVD drive arrived too late to save the format when it could have won the BD/HD-DVD war if it had been built into the 360. When it hardly matters any more. When people have gone elsewhere.

There is hope – perhaps Greenberg’s ambiguous use of ‘integrate’ suggests that what MS consider to be the ‘stink’ of Blu-ray will be kept away from the precious machine itself in the form of the previously-reported peripheral, and that the veto only applies to core Blu-ray functionality on the 360. The messages are certainly mixed. The question is whether the hesitant (but very curious) potential Blu-ray market can or will wait for MS to commit to supporting its old enemy.

The Register

*You’ll notice that the conversation is primarily available via iTunes.

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11/10/08 (UK)