HBO Go on the Xbox: Great, if your cable provider allows it

Can the future of TV get any more fragmented? Yes, apparently it can.

(Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET)

Can your game console act as a TV replacement? Very nearly, now that more and more video apps are hitting consoles at a record rate. HBO Go, which has become a symbol of sorts for the potential of app-based on-demand entertainment as a cable accessory, has hit the Xbox, joining Roku, Android phones, the iPhone, and the iPad -- and, of course, smart TVs and laptops, too.

Unlike IP-based cable provider apps like Time Warner and Xfinity, HBO Go works anywhere in the U.S. just like Netflix, provided you have a subscriber log-in that comes from signing in via your cable provider. Oh, there's one more thing: not all cable providers allow HBO Go to work on the Xbox. Depending on who your provider is, you'll either (a) not be able to use HBO Go, or (b) be able to use it on certain devices, but not others.

An example, from HBO Go's Web site:

Comcast: iPad, iPhone, Android Phones
DirecTV: iPad, iPhone, Android Phones, Samsung Smart TV, Xbox 360
Dish: iPad, iPhone, Android Phones, Roku, Samsung Smart TV, Xbox 360
Time Warner: iPad, iPhone, Android Phones
Verizon Fios: iPad, iPhone, Android Phones, Roku, Samsung Smart TV, Xbox 360

The main takeaway: Comcast and Time Warner Cable don't support anything other than smartphones and the iPad for HBO Go. That makes sense, maybe, if you consider that Comcast has its Xfinity app (launched yesterday alongside HBO Go), and Time Warner has is own TV-on-the-iPad app. But then again, it makes no sense at all.

"TV everywhere" is the new DRM, but it's worse than that: TV apps are being fragmented by their very definition of what "TV" constitutes. Maybe an iPhone is less of a threat than a Roku box or Xbox. I don't see why, since HBO Go requires a cable subscription with HBO regardless, a hurdle that already makes me mad.

Perhaps an app like HBO Go on a TV, with its superior interface and back catalog, would simply show up the downright crappy interfaces and content offerings on most cable on-demand services, and make cable companies step up their game in much the same way that the iPhone made the design of many smartphones look pathetic.

HBO on-demand, on Time Warner. John Falcone/CNET

Right now, it's almost like fragmentation itself is getting fragmented. It's hard enough explaining to my mom how HBO Go works...imagine if I have to tell her where where she can and can't use it, too?

The Kinect-enabled HBO Go Xbox app works well, as well as you might expect. The clean interface of the iPad app has conformed itself to the Xbox 360 Metro-ified grid, and the whole app works with hand gestures and voice command (voice doesn't work for individual show search, though). Activation happens through an alphanumeric code that's entered via a computer or mobile device into your HBO Go account.

HBO Go on the Xbox 360. Scott Stein/CNET

My wife's reaction to HBO Go captured everything I needed to know. First, when she saw it was on the Xbox, she said, "Oh, cool, that's great. We can watch on the TV." When she found out that the Xbox version didn't work for all cable customers, she didn't really understand, then said "that's ridiculous." And, she kept asking me when HBO would sell a subscription outside of cable. It's bound to happen, she said. I explained that, via the intricacies of the cable TV industry, right now cable companies look like they're pulling all the strings. Still, she shook her head, and said it has to happen. It will. I'd like to believe her.

I certainly don't see why content companies like HBO can't start selling direct subscriptions, especially with the millions of customers who might be interested. Right now, however, I have a graver concern: that cable companies will fragment an already fragmented landscape even further, to the point of absurdity.

HBO Go is one of three services to hit the Xbox 360 yesterday, including the Xfinity app for Comcast subscribers and MLB.TV, which has a different access system that's not cable company-based at all. Devices like the Xbox are becoming ever more versatile and capable of becoming the future of set-top boxes, but if each app has its own set of rules of operation, it's going to get pretty confusing for would-be consumers.

The future of TV is here, but everyone's not onboard yet.

 

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