"For the first time, you and your TV will have a relationship."
That's how Microsoft began the introduction of its new Xbox One today — a presentation that focused less on games and more on the new console as a complete living room device. "The ultimate all-in-one entertainment system," said Microsoft's Don Mattrick. And since no ultimate entertainment system is complete without television, the event segued neatly into a demonstration of the new Xbox's Live TV feature. Just say the name of a channel and it'll switch; say the name of a show and the Xbox will find it. Jumping from TV to game to the built-in Internet Explorer browser is instant, we were told. Watching an NBA basketball game? Say "fantasy" and you'll see stats and highlights instantly appear.
The message was clear: the Xbox One features seamlessly integrated television. People on Twitter began asking me about built in tuners, how big the DVR was, and whether it would support antennas as well as cable. For one glorious moment, it looked like Microsoft had achieved the dream.
The Xbox One's TV integration is a familiar nightmare
The problem is that the demoes weren't real — the Xbox One's TV integration is the same familiar nightmare we've known for nearly 20 years now. Instead of actually integrating with your TV service, the One sits on top of it: you plug your cable box's HDMI cable into the Xbox, which overlays the signal with its own interface. If you're lucky enough to own a newer cable box, you'll get to change channels directly through the HDMI connection, but most people will find themselves using the One's included IR blaster to control their cable or satellite boxes — a failure-prone one-way communication system that stubbornly refuses to die.
Exactly the same way Google TV works
If this sounds familiar to you, it's because it's exactly the same way Google's flailing Google TV platform works. (Google TV even had an NBA demo when it launched in 2011.) If you're a little older it should be even more familiar: it's exactly how Microsoft's own doomed webTV platform worked. We've been overlaying fancy interfaces on top of cable signals and praying for IR blasters to adequately control the boxes for years now, and it's never worked — the content and information on your cable box is too valuable to relegate it to second place, and jumping back and forth between interfaces is irritating and stupid.
What's more, these systems only really work for live television, which you probably aren't watching. Want to watch a show recorded on your DVR? There's no way for the Xbox One to know about it, so you have to use the DVR interface. Found a great show using the One's search and discovery tools and want to record the season? Time to switch to the DVR interface again. IR blaster miss a channel change? The One's guide and channel bar will show different information than the cable box. The cable box is the canonical interface for television, and every attempt to usurp or overlay it has failed.
Xbox One won't free you from your cable box — it'll stay firmly chained to it
Microsoft seems to know that it has a challenge ahead of it and that the Xbox One's TV functionality needs to evolve quickly — the official press release for the Xbox One promises that the company is "committed to bringing Live TV through various solutions to all the markets where Xbox One will be available," and the company's FAQ simply states that "the delivery of TV is complex." And indeed, in European markets where the Xbox 360 is already able to serve as an IPTV cable box, there's a chance the One could achieve the sort of seamless integration we all hoped for as Microsoft began its demo today.
But Microsoft is launching the Xbox One in the United States, where the hyper-fragmented television market will keep that IR Out port firmly in play until broadband TV services like Aereo take off or the cable companies themselves build streaming services. And that's years away. Until then, the Xbox One won't free you from your cable box — it'll stay firmly chained to it.