Farhad Manjoo makes some really good points in this piece called “Apple Doesn’t Need to Make the TV of the Future” arguing that Xbox already does many of the things that people keep dreaming Apple might do with an Apple TV product sometime in the future. Things like voice commands and hand commands are already there with Xbox and Kinect, and if you haven’t used one yet, you should. It’s amazing. And yes, Microsoft has run ads about this, but for some reason everyone in the world has heard of Siri but not as many are aware of the much cooler things you can do with Kinect. I brought this up during my visit to Microsoft and we talked a bit about why this is the case and the answer just seems to be that Apple is really, really good at marketing.

The truth is that Xbox is amazing and it keeps getting better, as happened this week when Microsoft added HBO Go, Xfinity and MLB.TV to its video offerings. Little by little Microsoft is building the future of TV right before our eyes. But: why can’t they make this thing more friendly for regular people? As a friend wrote to me last week in regard to my “Month of Microsoft project:

So here’s my biggest question I’d ask a Microsoft executive if I was next to one on a plane: Why aren’t trying to smash Apple in the living room more aggressively? It’s the one big territory not yet conquered by Cupertino. They have hug leads in mobile phones, tablets, and what remains of the MP3 player market. But in the living room – TV, really, but also networked home audio – Microsoft has what could be called a lead. My wife and I have an XBox 360 and it’s great. We watch Netflix on there all the time, my wife plays games, I just signed up for Hulu Plus which is also on there. My sister in law buys Zune Store movies all the time to watch on her big screen via the 360.

But it doesn’t seem like they’re really seizing the opportunity to leave Apple in the dust. Two big things Microsoft isn’t fixing: You need a $50 annual subscription to something called “XBox Live Gold” to make Netflix and Hulu work, which is confusing (not expensive, just confusing – Xbox Live Gold??). Number two, the box is designed for hard core gamers. Why isn’t there a cheaper spinoff for those of us who don’t care about games? I mean literally you have to BOOT UP the remote, because it’s not just a remote, it’s a hard core gamer controller which you can plug a two-way headset into for online gaming. But it’s way over the top for simply media hub stuff, to have
to hold down a button and wait 20 seconds to use the remote because it’s booting up.

So meanwhile, while Microsoft is still targeting the Xbox to dorm room nerds who happily drop $300+ on a console and have time to learn what Xbox Live and Xbox Live Gold and Xbox Live Family Pack are, Apple is out there with a very simple, $100 box that does Netflix out of the box (no membership fees), does photo slideshows on your TV and plays whatever is already on your iPhone. It’s like Microsoft is PURPOSELY trying to squander its advantage in all the typical ways – over versioning (Xbox Live Blah Blah is a lot like the fiasco with Vista Ultimate, Vista Home, Vista Standard, Vista Professional etc etc), clinging too tightly to old markets (gamers, in this case, Windows in the past)…. I just don’t get why they aren’t doing a simpler version of the Xbox for people who want to watch movies on their TVs. Or at least dropping the stupid Xbox Live Gold requirement for Netflix.

I get it. I totally do. The confusion factor is real. The controller is goofy. Heck, the box itself is goofy too; why not do something sleek and minimalist that would look good in my living room? The UI looks great, but the TV stuff gets buried under a menu system. And why not simplify the process with fewer versions?

I’ve signed up for Xbox Live Gold. I’ve signed up for a Zune Pass. I even figured out how to use the Zune Pass on my Xbox. Great! Then I tried to figure out how to make it work on my Windows Phone. It’s possible, but it’s a bit of a science project.

As I wrote to one of my Microsoft buddies the other day: The main thing I was hoping to achieve by going with all Microsoft products was a sense of synergy among all these pieces and I don’t think I’ve unlocked that yet. And I don’t want science projects.

My biggest “theme” right now is that it seems as if Microsoft has lots of great products but they all come from different groups, and different places. I wish Microsoft would come up with a single grand unifying vision that brings all parts of my life together — where the focus wouldn’t be on products but on the people using them, and the things we want to do. And it would all be easy to figure out and easy to use.

(FWIW, my buddy says Microsoft is on a path toward convergence, and that a lot of the stuff I’m talking about will be addressed over the next year.)

For now, Microsoft provides you with lots of different ways of doing the same things. They’re almost giving you a toolkit, a set of Legos and you can assemble them in different ways.

Apple is trying to do the more curated approach where it’s like, Just buy this, this, this and this, and we’ll make them all work together, as long as you only want to do A, B, C, and D, and only in the ways we allow. Want to watch something on your iPad and then toss it to your TV? No worries.

But even Apple hasn’t figured out how to sell the grand unified vision. Maybe because they also can’t deliver that vision.

Microsoft’s approach probably gives you more flexibility and the ability to arrange things in different configurations — but at the price of complexity. Apple is simpler but has less flexibility.

The issue I’m having, and the one I’m hoping Microsoft (or someone) can solve is that I just have too much stuff in too many different place.

In my living room I have a first-generation Apple TV box, a Roku box, and a DVD player, plus a cable box. I’m thinking about adding a Boxee box too just because I want to see how it works.

In my basement I have another first-generation Apple TV box, plus the Xbox. I can watch Netflix about a dozen different ways, or so it seems. Or I can rent/buy movies on iTunes, Amazon, Verizon FIOS On Demand, etc.

But what I really want is one ring to rule them all.

As for my personal content, I have photos on flickr, on picasa, on MobileMe. I have videos on those plus on YouTube. I have documents on Google Docs, and Dropbox, and then across a bunch of local drives. I have backups on Carbonite and Mozy, though one or both of those might have expired.

At this point when I think of some movie I’ve made or photo I’ve taken I don’t even know where to go look for it.

I just have all this crap all over the place and I want some company (hint hint, Microsoft) to come along and give me one place to put everything, forever. With simple screens (phone, tablet, laptop, TV) with UIs that all look the same and can all pull anything from the central repository.

I don’t want to do science projects. I don’t want to play systems integrator, not even once, and definitely not on a rolling basis, integrating new devices and new services all the time, whenever there’s a new device or a new piece of software. I’m sick of the constant change — like when Apple took us all from .Mac to MobileMe and now to iCloud.

Please, someone, figure this stuff out once and for all, and just do it. I don’t care who you are, I’ll be there. This isn’t religion for me. If it’s Apple, fine. Microsoft, fine. Hell, if AOL comes out with the solution I’ll go with them. I really don’t care. I just want this done. And I’ll gladly pay for this. I don’t need it to be free. In fact I don’t want it to to be free, because “free” means targeted advertising and loads of other crap that’s worth than just paying money. Just charge me. I have the money, and I’m willing to spend it if you can solve my problem.