Microsoft Goes The Last Few Feet

We rag on Microsoft a lot around here. Zune, particularly, has come in for a lot of pre-sale criticism from these quarters. So we should praise them when they do something right. And today’s announcement that they have set up a deal with several studios to offer downloads directly to their Xbox Live service in just a couple of weeks smacks a whole hell of a lot of doing things right.

It’s an idea that only those who instinctively dislike everything Microsoft does could hate.

In addition to CBS, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment and Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Pictures and MTV Networks, Microsoft has signed agreements with Turner Broadcasting System Inc. and Ultimate Fighting Championship, a privately held Las Vegas company that primarily broadcasts pay-per-view fights.

At this point, it doesn’t look like they’ve struck a deal with every content provider, but if this is a success — and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be, since Xbox already has a built-in audience — that might only be a matter of time.

TV shows will be purchased; Films downloaded for rental, and price points are expected to be comparable to current TV an Film download services.

Best of all, of course, is the fact that you’re getting online downloads while keeping your computer out of the mix. No software downloads like Unbox, and you don’t have to worry about how to watch what you’ve downloaded on your TV.

Of course, those for whom portability is an issue won’t need this; but they aren’t the target audience here. The target audience are those who may have missed a particular episode of a show (or worse, had it cut off for some reason), are willing to spend a couple of bucks to grab it but hate watching a full episode on their computer or iPod.

For example, I know that this particular show isn’t offered here, but as the season winds on; a whole lot of people are probably regretting not getting with Heroes (or worse, giving it up after a couple of eps), and Xbox Live would allow them to catch up over the holidays without having to squint at their iPod or hook their up to their TV.

If, of course, they already had an Xbox. Which is the rub, of course. And part of Microsoft’s point, to be sure. While this probably isn’t a killer app that will drive non-gamers like me to the Xbox, it might be a deciding point for gamers to stick with the Xbox vs. Sony’s new version of Playstation. And, quite possibly be one of many factors that drive people to HD-DVD as opposed to Blu-Ray.

Does this mean that Apple shouldn’t even bother with their previously announced iTV? Hell no. First off, Apple already has a headstart with content providers; a headstart that Microsoft might have difficulty catching up with. Secondly, Apple should be offering a fully integrated approach: you can watch your shows on your iPod, or you can watch them on your iTV. If Apple can offer more content, HD quality and the actual ability to watch anything, anywhere, they win. Especially if Microsoft can’t figure out how to make the Xbox play nicely with Zune.

Either way, it will be an interesting battle to watch next year, as it turns out to be the computer companies, not the electronic companies, who are taking the lead on how we experience digital entertainment.

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