Why Microsoft Is Whipping Apple in TV

on March 28, 2012

Farhad Manjoo at Slate has a good piece today on how Microsoft is already delivering many of the expected features of the tech world’s favorite unicorn, the Apple television. The combination of the Xbox and the Kinect sensor, together with a rich array of video services available through Xbox Live, provides a voice- and gesture-controlled user interface for your TV.

Photo of Xbox and Kinect
Xbox and Kinect (iStockPhoto)

Xbox Live today offers a considerably richer array of video services than the current Apple TV set top box, and that is not likely to change quickly, no matter what sort of integrated hardware Apple comes up with. This competition isn’t about hardware. It’s about securing the availability of content in the Byzantine world of of content owners and distributors. Here, Microsoft is miles ahead of Apple and likely to remain so.

In Hollywood, big, bad Microsoft is viewed as something of an honest broker, a company that is prepared to work with the content owners rather than steal their business. Apple is viewed as the company that destroyed the music business and the company that gobbles up all the profits of any business it enters.

Microsoft, in fact, has been courting Hollywood for years. It worked closely with cable and satellite TV distributors on IPTV technology. Going back to the mid-1990s, its designed its Media Center software to be respectful of content owners. None of these overtures turned into particularly successful businesses, but they left Microsoft well-positioned for the future.

A crucial area where Microsoft is ahead of Apple is in delivering  cable content to TVs via the internet. It has deals with Verizon FiOS and, as of this week, Comcast Xfinity, to deliver select cable channels via Xbox Live. Subscribers to some cable or satellite services, including FiOS and DirecTV, can get HBO Go on their Xboxes. (The question of who can get what content is still way too complicated, but is slowly being worked out.)

The key is that studios and distributors view Microsoft as an enabler rather than a competitor and disruptor. And that could allow Microsoft to remain way ahead of A[[le for some time to come in the competition that matters–the fight for content.