Microsoft TV? Another bad idea that's D.O.A.

Jim O'Neil

I want to believe Microsoft TV--if that's what the computer maker's eventual entry into the over-the-top, or, the alternative delivery race is called--is going to succeed, I really do. I have an Xbox, I've always had a Windows-based PC lying around the house, and I didn't hate my Mediaroom set-top box when I was an AT&T U-verse customer.

Reading the reports the past couple of days, you'd think the battle had already been fought; that Google TV, Apple TV and all the new OTT devices had been vanquished. But the truth of the matter is that Microsoft TV is still just an idea, and not even an acknowledged one at that. Microsoft says it doesn't comment on rumors, and that's probably a good thing, because if they confirmed that they were thinking about a pay-TV service, as Reuters earlier this week reported, it would be bedlam.

There's no question Microsoft wants to be in the pay-TV space, its partnership with Disney brought ESPN3 to the Xbox and it's actually pretty hot. But it's also got a pretty rocky history in television. Remember Web TV, Microsoft TV (hmm, that's been used before), Ultimate TV and Media Center? Not exactly the foundation upon which an empire is built.

Maybe this time is different, maybe the software giant has learned its lessons and is ready to chop wood and put Google and Apple, both of which have pretty significant head starts, in its rearview mirror.

Granted, it has a perfect foot in the door with its Xbox in nearly 20 million U.S. households, and it's got a dandy a la carte offering in the ESPN3 channels it offers across Xbox Live.

But what else? How would Microsoft TV be different?

Like other current Microsoft projects--think the lagging Windows Phone 7--it would have to play catch up before it could pull away.

And, right now, there's nothing revolutionary being floated in the Microsoft rumors. According to Reuters, Microsoft is either planning to offer more a la carte content choices, or to use its Xbox as an STB for other pay TV operators, or to offer a virtual cable service, essentially cable online.

Hal Bringman, a spokesman for ivi TV, which describes itself as an Internet-based cable operator, said he's taken part in discussions with Microsoft about a virtual cable offering.

"Microsoft has the right idea, and from what I have gathered in discussions with them, I think their vision is a solid one, especially with the "cool" factor brought about with Kinect," he said. "Talk about the ultimate in personalizing your entertainment experience. Consumers are clearly looking for compelling ways to cut the cord. This is no longer urban myth, the data proves this."

Bringman said offering ivi TV across the Xbox could be a killer combination.

"Between Xbox games, Netflix  and ivi TV's legal content offerings, the Xbox could become the de facto integrated STB in the household." 

Of course, that's a long way off; Reuters said Microsoft is looking at least 12 months down the road before it would try to launch anything. If it does wait that long, will Google TV, Apple TV, Netflix and all the rest have leads too big to overcome?

Microsoft has a couple of other hurdles to overcome before it can really be considered a potential player in the TV Land Sweepstakes.

It's obvious that none of the current players have hit upon a model that makes sense to the studios, and it's also pretty clear that Microsoft would have a lot of selling to do in Hollywood to convince the studios that it can be trusted any more than Apple, Google or Netflix. There's no edge for anyone there; they're all at the mercy of content providers that are, well, befuddled. Programmers know there's change coming, but they're afraid to jump into cahoots with any one company. That's why Apple hasn't been able to parlay Steve Jobs' connection with Disney into anything more than a few pieces of content on iTunes. It's also why Google TV is, and is likely to remain for a while, an empty shell.

If you subscribe to the notion that cord cutters (you do believe in cord cutters, don't you?) are young, educated and reasonably affluent, then it's also a given that they're more comfortable, and likely more loyal, to the brands they've grown up with--Apple (and its iPhone, iPod and iTunes franchises) and all things Google.

Finally, Microsoft has, especially of late, just struggled to execute any major strategy. Windows Phone 7 and Windows 7 have been hardly transformative, in fact, in some ways, they're just more examples of Microsoft following the leaders.

Microsoft TV? Stick a fork in it, that turkey's done. -Jim