Social networks, video coming to Xbox in November

Microsoft's hit online service will soon feature the ability to bring Facebook, Twitter, and Last.fm into the living room, as well as to instantly stream movies and TV shows.

Microsoft is getting ready for a November release of new Facebook, Twitter, Last.fm, and instant movie and TV show streaming features in Xbox Live. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--At a star-studded E3 press conference last June, Microsoft touted, among other things, a plan to bring Facebook, Twitter, and Last.fm to its hit online service, Xbox Live, as well as to begin offering instant streaming of movies and TV shows.

At the time, all Microsoft would say is that it hoped to roll out these new features to the public in the fall.

Well, it's now the fall. And on Wednesday, my colleague Josh Lowensohn and I got a first-hand look at the pre-release Xbox Live implementation of Facebook, Twitter, Last.fm, and video streaming, and had a chance to talk to Xbox Live General Manager Ron Pessner about it all.

Microsoft is still not ready to let the public in on the fun yet, and today is only willing to give the launch a November timeframe--with no actual date announced. Further, since E3, the so-called InstantOn streaming feature has been rolled up into a larger Zune branding effort, something that I think is a big mistake, given the cool reception the Zune name--at least as it applies to Microsoft's music player--has received in the marketplace.

Regardless, it's clear that Microsoft is nearly ready to start letting the Xbox Live community get its hands on the Facebook, Twitter, and Last.fm features, and to begin streaming video content rather than waiting for it to download, which has been a slow, frustrating process by all accounts.

Pessner began by talking about Facebook. Clearly, Microsoft's interest is in getting the feature up and running and letting Xbox Live users begin to access the popular social network on their TVs sooner, rather than later, even though some fundamental elements of Facebook haven't been included.

According to Pessner, a chief goal of the implementation was to make it easy for users to make photo slideshows and watch them on their TVs. A quick demo revealed that much of the Xbox Live Facebook tool is built around looking at photo albums, scrolling between friends' albums and seeing who on a user's friends list has added photos to their account.

But one of Facebook's most fundamental offerings is photos and allowing users to upload them. And Microsoft has chosen, for now at least, not to let users do that. Pessner says the decision was made that Facebook on Xbox Live is about viewing images, and that anyone who wants to upload them to the social network will do so via the Web. It's a fair point, but it does seem like a major omission, and it would seem like something Microsoft will have to address soon.

Pessner also pointed to what he called Friend Linker, which is designed to help Facebook users see which of their friends are Xbox Live members, and vice versa. Among other things, it makes for an easy way for Facebook users to discover friends' gamertags and to invite them to be friends on Xbox Live.

All in all, while it's likely that many Xbox Live users will find themselves switching over to the Facebook application frequently--why move over to a computer if it's not necessary?--it's clear that there is a lot of room for more. The interface is consistent with everything else on Xbox Live, something that may please some. But frequent Facebookers might find it confusing to have to use Facebook in an entirely different format. Only time will tell.

Twitter on Xbox Live
Pessner then showed off the Xbox Live Twitter application. Like its Facebook counterpart, the interface will look very familiar to Xbox Live users. Pessner said the idea was to design a Twitter experience for the living room.

That means, of course, a fairly scaled down Twitter app. Users can post their own tweets, view friends' tweets, re-tweet them, favorite them, look at profiles, @ reply to others, and do Twitter searches. And that's about it.

To be sure, there aren't that many more features available to Twitter users elsewhere, but there are some. Again, Pessner made the argument that the idea was to optimize the experience for a living room TV and that to access a full range of features, users will happily turn to their computers.

One thing missing from both the Facebook and Twitter applications, however, is the ability to click on URLs, something that is a major piece of the social-networking puzzle these days.

Asked why not, a Microsoft spokesperson said, "That's not something we support right now. Today we're focused on delivering a great Twitter and Facebook experience which connects the Xbox Live community to friends in new and unique ways...This is just the beginning, and the great thing about Xbox Live is that we can evolve and update features based on the community's feedback."

Last.fm
The third piece of the new Xbox Live puzzle is its Last.fm application. Last.fm (which is owned by CNET News parent CBS Interactive) is a music service aimed at helping users discover new songs and artists--something Microsoft is hoping will add to users' overall Xbox Live experience.

Pessner said that adding Last.fm gives users access to a wide range of new music and music-related tools, much as adding Netflix to Xbox Live last year did for movies.

As with the Facebook and Twitter tools, Xbox Live users will find a scaled down version of Last.fm, one that Pessner said is focused mainly on music consumption, "but also on discovery."

Again, the tool has the familiar Xbox Live look and feel, and appears to be something that will expand some users' musical horizons. But it's also clear that what this is a simpler version of a service that's been optimized for a TV, and those who want the full experience will return to their computers.

And that's fine. No one is expecting Microsoft to replace their computer with Xbox Live, though I'm sure Microsoft would like to do so someday. If, for example, it ever put a full-featured Web browser inside Xbox Live, some of the missing features mentioned above could be addressed. But that's a conversation for another day.

InstantOn
The last new feature is the InstantOn streaming service that Xbox Live users will have access to. The idea is to give those buying or renting TV shows or movies through the Zune video marketplace (formerly known as the Xbox Live video marketplace) instant gratification instead of making them wait for their content to download.

The service will offer full 1080p high-definition movies and TV shows, and will let those who purchase content watch it right away or download it to their Xbox, a Zune player, or a PC. Those who rent content will be able to stream it and will have 24 hours to finish watching it once they press "play."

Pessner pointed to the fact that the service is designed to auto-detect a user's bandwidth level in order to play back the content in an appropriate quality. The idea there is to ensure that a user gets to watch what they want right away, regardless of how fast their connection is.

From Microsoft's perspective, this new set of offerings will make the Xbox an even stronger entertainment option than it has been in the past. But Pessner said there is still much more that can be added to the platform.

He wouldn't say what the next steps would be, of course, but did paint a broad picture, suggesting that users can draw their own conclusions of how Project Natal , Microsoft's forthcoming gesture-based control system for Xbox and PC "can light this up."

 

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