While it may have been the game trailers that drew cheers from the crowd at Microsoft's Xbox briefing in Los Angeles this week, the partnerships and new features that the company announced signal its intent to expand the console's role far beyond gaming.
"I absolutely think Microsoft is trying to build on its Xbox Live advantage and push more out from games," said IDC games analyst Lewis Ward. "Consoles are becoming like 'smart' set-top boxes but with a massive game delivery advantage."
Microsoft announced 35 content partners at E3 ranging from Nickelodeon for kids to Univision for Spanish speakers. The National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Hockey League (NHL) will join Major League Baseball (MLB) in streaming games through the console. Sports fans will also be able to watch four different ESPN channels later this year.
To see some of the new features and content announced for Xbox, watch a video on YouTube.
Xbox will make content consumption different from traditional television viewing. For example, consumers could watch two basketball games simultaneously and using Kinect voice commands, switch between the two. With other voice commands, they could watch the games on full or split screens. Adding a social component to the games, fans can pick winners and share the picks with friends, which will appear in a carousel at the bottom of the screen.
Xbox SmartGlass is a new feature that will let users consume complementary content across multiple devices. For example, during the presentation Xbox Live vice president Marc Whitten demonstrated how a tablet could show additional information while watching the HBO series Game of Thrones. While watching the program on the big screen, the tablet showed a map of where the scene was taking place. In another demonstration, a gamer crafted a play on a tablet, then executed it on the television screen in Madden NFL.
SmartGlass will let users browse the Web using their smartphones as the controllers. Microsoft announced that Internet Explorer will come to Xbox, but didn't say whether other browsers would be supported. Nintendo and Sony have Web browsers, but navigating with a game controller and typing without a physical keyboard have made the browsers difficult to use.
"We'll see on the implementation of it, but I think the vision is interesting in that they can enable the Web browser hopefully in a more user-friendly way," said Ward. He thinks that Microsoft will debut its next-generation console at E3 next year.
"Partly what's going on with the SmartGlass announcement is that they're trying to pre-empt Wii U," said Ward, referring to Nintendo's next-generation console that will ship before the end of 2012.