Why can't Microsoft innovate with Windows 8 as it is with Xbox 360?

Microsoft's innovative display of Xbox SmartGlass and Internet Explorer for Xbox at E3 contradicts its recent Windows 8 follies.

At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) today, Microsoft unveiled a number of interesting innovations that link the company’s successful Xbox 360 game console to other devices, including PCs, smartphones and tablets, and finally give the Xbox 360 the ability to easily browse and navigate the web.

Before unveiling SmartGlass and Internet Explorer for Xbox, Microsoft posed the following questions via the official press release announcing the technologies:

“What if your tablet or phone knew what you were watching on TV and presented bonus features without you having to lift a finger? What if you could use your tablet to draw up a play in EA SPORTS’ Madden NFL and then perform it to perfection on your TV? What if you could control your favorite websites on the TV with a simple swipe, pinch or zoom on your tablet’s touchscreen?”

My answer to all three questions: It would be awesome, for the most part at least.

MORE FROM THIS AUTHOR: Microsoft dumps Aero in Windows 8, bets on tablets over desktops

Microsoft’s head of Xbox Live, Marc Whitten, began his presentation at E3 by demoing Xbox SmartGlass, an application for Windows 8, Windows Phone, and other portable devices—including those running Android and iOS—that will connect PCs, smartphones and tablets to an Xbox 360 console with Kinect to make consuming content or playing games more immersive. In the first part of the demo, Mr. Whitten showed a clip from HBO’s “Game of Thrones” playing on an Xbox 360. And as video of the show played on a virtual TV, rich data about the show was automatically being sent to a handheld device. Cast and episode information, and even information about where events were taking place in Westeros (one of the fictional continents in GoT), were also sent to the device. As someone who is constantly searching Wikipedia or IMDB when watching TV and movies, I find this feature particularly interesting and think it’s a great use of technology that’s almost always at arm’s reach. The connections you can find between actors and locals can sometimes be more exciting than the actual show or movie being watched.

Mr. Whitten also showed how Xbox SmartGlass can enhance the gaming experience. In the demo, a tablet was used to create and execute a new play in EA’s Madden NFL game. While I don’t think many gamers would take the time or effort to create their own plays when hundreds are already included with the game, giving users the ability to do so on a device that’s much easier to navigate is great. If, when Xbox SmartGlass launches later this year, it’s as easy to use and seamless as the demo at E3 made it appear, it’s going to be interesting to see how game developers leverage the technology. I would love to see how a space or war game could use a tablet as a HUD or companion display, for example. Or maybe multiplayer games can move score and other game data to the secondary screen to leave all of the TV’s screen real estate to the actual game. There are myriad possibilities.

Internet Explorer for Xbox creatively leverages the capabilities of today’s mobile devices as well. As Mr. Whitten put it, “with Internet Explorer on Xbox, the web is just a voice command or a simple swipe away.” Internet Explorer is coming to the Xbox this fall and gives users the ability to control web pages from a tablet or phone, using the Kinect’s voice-recognition capabilities and the gesture controls we’ve all gotten used to on our touch-enabled devices, including pinch-to-zoom, etc. If you’ve ever tried to browse the web from a game console using its controller, it’ll be obvious that using a tablet or smartphone instead will result in a far better experience.

It’s this kind of innovative thinking that somewhat contradicts what the company is doing with Windows 8. With SmartGlass and Internet Explorer on Xbox, Microsoft’s engineers have developed creative ways to consume the additional computing resources afforded by smart devices connected to an Xbox, to offer users a potentially more immersive and engaging experience. Stripping Windows 8 down, ditching Aero in favor of simpler 2D UI elements, and forcing the basic Metro interface on desktop users with massive amounts (relative speaking) of computing horsepower at their disposal runs counter to what SmartGlass and Internet Explorer on Xbox offer to owners of Microsoft’s game console. I’m all for efficiency and continuity, but not at the expense of innovation. I would much rather see the creative thinkers at Microsoft figure out ways to offer better experiences to owners of powerful PCs by using the available resources, rather than paring things down to accommodate the more limited capabilities of most mobile devices.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

IT Salary Survey: The results are in