Last week, all eyes turned to Redmond as Microsoft ( MSFT ) unveiled its upcoming eighth-generation console, the Xbox One. Although full game demos were conspicuously missing, Microsoft paid a great deal of attention to one of the features that has made the Xbox 360 such a hit with users: its media center capabilities.
The Xbox One touts live TV features like a voice search for programs, a Web browser than can snap to the side while watching broadcast television, and the ability to automatically update your fantasy football league any time a member of your team scores a touchdown. In fact, speaking of voice search, Microsoft has basically injected Google ( GOOG ) Now commands into the Xbox One's means of interactivity. While it might not be as in-depth and interpretive of "fuzzy language," being able to say "Xbox, watch TV" and have it switch to a live broadcast of Breaking Bad is pretty cool.
The only problem with this "ultimate all-in-one entertainment system," as Microsoft called it: We've heard that before, and we've been let down. Time and time again.
Sure, there's always a chance that the Xbox One will revolutionize the way we watch TV and lead the way in developing an all-too-important standard in which all other media centers can follow, but there've been seemingly hundreds of these types of devices since WebTV came on the scene, and their success is measured in how well they can stream Netflix ( NFLX ).
Take, for example, the Apple ( AAPL ) TV.
I bought a first-generation Apple TV years ago in the hopes that it could deliver the on-demand, fully interactive television that I dreamed about when I was a TV junkie youth. The idea of scrolling through unlimited programs with a remote and having a program or film play automatically whenever I wanted was such a fantastical vision.
And in terms of a high-quality, non-stuttering program or film, it still is.
Admittedly, the Apple TV has always been dubbed a "hobby" by Cupertino, and man, did it show. The underpowered, overpriced device could barely deliver 720p entertainment and crashed so often that I wondered if that "hobby" was like someone saying their pastime was wind-surfing when they've only gone twice.
The Apple TV was sold already stunted: Its USB port in the back couldn't be used without jailbreaking the device. In other words, you actually had to hack the Apple TV so it could function like a normal media player and access local files. I purchased the device on the condition that I could hack it -- which a number of sites said was a breeze -- and use it in that matter.
Well, hack or not, the first-generation Apple TV was a terrible, glitchy product. One of the worst I ever bought.
But then I bought the Boxee Box, which redefined the meaning of "worst."
Touted as an open source device that, again, would be the ultimate all-in-one set-top box, the Boxee Box was introduced with the very popular Boxee software built in. It had two USB ports which you didn't have to hack in order to use, 1040p video capabilities, hundreds of streaming apps, a Web browser with Adobe ( ADBE ) Flash support, and a remote with a QWERTY keyboard on the back.
The thing was, most -- if not all -- of those features were continually broken throughout the lifespan of this device.
The Boxee Box never worked right for most users. A quick search through its support forums, its Facebook page, or @Boxee mentions on Twitter show a legion of dissatisfied users who, like me, tried in vain to get an uncommunicative company to address -- let alone fix -- the problems we've continued to have with this bug-ridden device. (A device that Boxee has since unceremoniously abandoned, leaving its most loyal users in the lurch before debuting a new and equally buggy set-top box. How's that for customer appreciation?)
Users were forced to keep outdated firmware loaded on their machines -- because every infrequent update from Boxee would break something else -- and find their own workarounds to get things running for more than a day. (A flashback to the "if you want it to work, you have to hack it" days of Apple TV.)
Between constant crashes, a severe memory leak, broken Flash support, an unusable Web browser, non-working apps, and an underpowered processor that could barely even start a 1040p stream let alone play it in its entirety, the Boxee Box is by far the biggest regretful purchase I've ever made.
And that's coming from someone who owned a Droid Bionic.
But the Apple TV and Boxee Box aren't the only disappointing entries into the media center arena. Google TV has all but been considered a flop since it was introduced in 2010. Yet again, touted as the vehicle that will redefine the way we watch television, Google TV hit one snag after another -- a poor UI, questionable manufacturing partners, uncooperative studios, low developer support -- before it seemed to be a shambling corpse still fighting for relevance. A future upgrade to Jelly Bean may inject some life into it, but its fate looks to be already sealed.
That isn't to say it's all the fault of the manufacturer. The aforementioned "uncooperative studios" play a major role in denying the public a TV-watching revolution. The NBCs (CMCSA), the ABCs (DIS), the Foxes (NWS), and the CBSs (CBS) all prefer the staid and antiquated broadcast model and, like the publishing industry, will eventually go down with the ship as the average user begins to prefer a cut cord to a $100+ monthly bill.
After all, you've seen the way they've run Hulu into the ground.
However, even in 2013 when Netflix and Wi-Fi abound (mostly), these studios and cable companies are still kicking around due to their massive control and power over the media. Despite an abundance of streaming and often free entertainment options, they still hold all the cards when it comes to passive television watching for the average viewer.
And, most importantly, they are absolutely essential for the success of any of these media centers. Want live TV interactivity? You better have a cable subscription and a licensed cable box -- the kind with the extra monthly charge to operate. If not, well, they'll see you in court -- a costly hiccup that the over-the-air television outfit Aereo knows all too well. (We still have to wait and see if its court win does anything for its success and adoption.)
So, what are we left with? Like I said before, glorified Netflix streamers. Even now, to get most of the options we all want and have them work consistently, well, your best option is building your own home theater PC, slapping a copy of XBMC on it, and sitting back with a Bluetooth keyboard remote.
In other words, another hack.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.