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Microsoft’s SmartGlass Is a Game-Changer (and TV-Changer, and Tablet-Changer)

A look at the extremely compelling Xbox service.
June 6, 2012

Something completely unexpected happened this week: I found myself desperately wanting a Windows tablet.

This is unexpected for a number of reasons. I’ve written before about how I’m an Apple man, for better or worse. And I’ve written before about how I was pretty sure I’d buy a MacBook Air well before I bought an iPad. Between my personal ambivalence over tablets–which are media consumption devices, not productivity devices (for now)–and my quasi-reluctant fealty to Cupertino, I never thought the words “I want a Windows tablet” would issue from my brain.

But then Microsoft had to go and announce this thing it’s calling SmartGlass. (It was one of many Xbox announcements at E3. See also: Nike+ Kinect Training, Internet Explorer for Xbox, and the expansion of the $99 Xbox deal to Best Buy and Gamestop.)

What is SmartGlass? First of all, it’s not to be confused with smart glass. Rather, SmartGlass is a technology that’s similar to Apple’s AirPlay, in that it forges a link between your TV screen and your other devices. But because it builds off of the myriad powerful capabilities inherent in the Xbox 360, it far outstrips AirPlay, at least at first glance. I’ll outline the various things it can do below, but why don’t you get an impression first with this recently released video:

Gizmodo neatly summarizes all the things SmartGlass is capable of. Second screen? Check. Additional game controller? Check. “Remote control for the Internet”? Check. SmartGlass enables all these features and more. And in doing so, it makes an extremely compelling case for why the Xbox 360 should be the anchor of your living room, and by extension, of your gadget-driven life. Which brings me back to why I want a Windows tablet.

There has been much talk of late of the problem of hacking TV in our connected age. That flatscreen in our living room is our modern-day hearth-center, and yet all too often, it’s animated mostly by outdated cable packages with mind-numbingly stupid interactive interfaces. If only we could get the well-designed, choice-heavy browsing experience we’ve come to expect on our other devices, and import it into our flatscreen. Whoever hacks that will have finally “cracked it,” in Steve Jobs’s words.

Am I wrong to think that Microsoft may have cracked it? We want the keyboard-and-mouse experience on our TV screens, without the actual keyboard and mouse. But what if our tablet could be repurposed as a keyboard, and our smart phone repurposed as a mouse? By taking a triumvirate of devices we’re familiar and comfortable with–our consoles, our phones, and our tablets–and linking them together with powerful capabilities, Microsoft pleasingly solves a suite of problems at once (dumb TVs, device proliferation, embarrassment over buying video game consoles). And in doing so, it completes an almost surreal transformation that I’ve seen unfold in front of my eyes: the evolution of the Xbox 360–which I bought years ago as an indulgent throwback to my Nintendo-playing days–into perhaps the most valuable piece of electronics I own.

Most valuable to me, but also most valuable to Microsoft, since the Xbox now is issuing a siren call from my den: “Buy a Windows tablet… buy a Windows phone… We could all have so much fun together…” (The software will reportedly come to iOS and Android, too, but it stands to reason that the fullest and best-integrated experience would come with Windows devices.) I’m listening, Redmond. Well done.

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