After putting together the photo gallery from the updated PlayStation Store earlier today, we were reminded of two things: first, Microsoft’s Xbox Live Marketplace, and then, a famous Steve Jobs interview from 1996:
“The only problem with Microsoft is, they just have no taste,” said Jobs. “They have absolutely no taste… I mean that in a big way… they don’t bring much culture into their product. … I have no problem with their success… I have a problem with the fact that they just make really third-rate products.”
Obviously, a lot has changed over the past decade since those words were spoken, and it’s unclear as to whether Apple’s CEO would say the same thing today as he did back then. Yet no matter what you think of Microsoft, the company has enjoyed success in the living room: its Xbox 360 console has sold 18 million units worldwide, roughly the same as the considerably less expensive Nintendo Wii, which has shipped (not sold) 20.13 million, and more than Sony’s PlayStation 3 at around 10.5 million sold. By comparison, Apple TV sales estimates are in the sub-1-million range, meaning that its custom version of the iTunes Store only reaches a small fraction of Apple’s over 50 million iTunes customers. Put another way, no matter how much you hear about Apple TV, it’s a comparatively small player in the living room, and more people see Microsoft’s digital download store Xbox Live Marketplace than the Apple TV version of the iTunes Store. (Sound familiar, Windows users?) So, “taste” aside, it seemed worthwhile to take a quick look at how the Xbox Live Marketplace store works, to see what Microsoft might have gotten right. Click on the article’s title or the read more link below for a brief walkthrough.
Microsoft’s interface for Marketplace is currently one of five folder-like tabs within the Xbox 360’s menu system. You flip through these tabs by pressing left or right on the controller’s directional pad, and one menu option is highlighted when the page loads up. Highlighting is done through a white glossy overlay that has glassine animation; two screenshots above you’ll see that “Spotlight” is highlighted, while the one directly above shows the Rock Band banner as highlighted. It’s perhaps the most subtle thing about the interface, which otherwise looks and feels somewhat chunky by comparison with Sony’s and Apple’s.
Once you select a heading such as Spotlight, you’re taken to a screen that makes somewhat cramped and confusing use of the display’s real estate. There’s a web page-style banner on every page’s top, with a Zune-styled horizontal scrolling menu underneath, a vertical scrolling menu under that, and then a text description box off to the right side. You press left or right to choose categories of content, then scroll up and down to see what the content is, often through multiple pages of listings with only four items per page. While the Zune-styled menu actually works well to sort the content, all the text on screen is overwhelming, and not balanced enough with graphics. Sony’s new PlayStation Store is the closest to the “right” balance here, both from a visual and control standpoint, while Apple TV’s now alternates between minimalist—not always in a good way—and a little confusing because of the version 2.0 dual-paned menu overlay.
What Microsoft has decidedly to its advantage are numerous types of downloadable content. Unlike the PlayStation Store, which is basically games, videos, and user interface themes, and Apple TV’s music, videos, TV shows, podcasts, and trailers, the Marketplace includes music, TV shows, movies, trailers, Xbox 360 games, demos, original Xbox games, user interface themes, and more. There’s a lot to download here, and you get the impression that you could easily fill your hard drive to capacity with even free content given just a day of searching. One of the only missteps in the Xbox’s content library was Microsoft’s decision to temporarily lock down some of the downloads, offering them early to paying Xbox Live Gold subscribers. While that might sound like a smart way to encourage membership, it puts off non-members and reinforces their distaste for the Xbox Live subscription business model. Apple should never, ever go down this path.
Just as with the PlayStation Store, Microsoft’s downloading system for Marketplace doesn’t feel quite right—rather than integrating cleanly into the store’s interface, it opens another window-like panel that slides on screen and jars you from the shopping experience, with a different color scheme and texture. It also reminds you of the single worst part of Marketplace—“Microsoft Points”—a faux currency that basically requires you to prepay Microsoft for all of your downloads before they’re made, making separate transactions for Points and individual downloads. Microsoft has no idea how much of our money and how many impulse buys they’ve lost by using this system; the PlayStation Store is saddled with a somewhat less imposing but still not great two-step-purchasing model.
As with the PlayStation Store, there aren’t streaming trailers or other streaming videos in Marketplace, so everything needs to be downloaded to the Xbox 360’s hard disk or another storage device—another factor in Apple TV’s favor. But Microsoft’s trailers go beyond just movies, spotlighting current and upcoming games, as well. Microsoft also tells you explicitly what resolution its videos are formatted in—here, the HD rental of Matrix Revolutions is 720p—though you’ll note that the odd “Eng, Eng, Eng” audio doesn’t say anything about Dolby Digital, which the Apple TV version of this movie includes. Apple’s preview screens for movie rentals are much nicer.
Once again, swappable themes and art are an advantage that the Xbox 360 offers over the Apple TV. Rather than sticking users with the stock, boring interface colors, Microsoft’s interface is designed to let users add background graphics that change from folder tab to tab. Here, Nike offers a free theme linked to its SPARQ training products, as well as avatar-like Gamer Pics with Nike iconography.
Is Microsoft’s interface tasteful? Classy? Reasonable people could disagree, and Steve Jobs might say “no,” but there’s no doubt that the faceplate-swappable, interface-skinnable Xbox 360 is in more living rooms than the Apple TV, and—staggering hardware defect rates aside—satisfying a lot of people. There are reasons, of course, that Apple probably wouldn’t prefer that Apple TV’s interface would wind up looking like what’s above, yet if there’s any lesson to be learned from the iPhone and Apple TV hacking that has taken place over the last year, it’s that people want to customize Apple’s products, and the best way to sell more hardware is to give users some freedom in the software. Microsoft has openly admitted that its design for the Xbox 360 was inspired by Apple’s iPods. Is it possible that Apple might have something to learn from Microsoft, too?