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Weekend Tech Scan: A Microsoft misstep

Microsoft is touting its mighty Xbox as the new center of home entertainment, but it may have given itself an unnecessary black eye by embracing services from Comcast and HBO that many Comcast subscribers can't access.

Xbox tiles interface

Xbox tiles interface Skip Ferderber

It is painful to watch Microsoft again stumble: this time with its widely promoted plan to turn its best-selling Xbox gaming console (66 million installed worldwide) into the center of your home entertainment. It’s not that the idea is wrong or the product isn’t good. The problem is putting a PR push behind services that will not perform on the Xbox as advertised — and Microsoft allowing this to happen.

Apple and the Apple App store, for all their faults, seems to have understood that protecting its customers is the key to its success. Microsoft may need to learn this lesson the hard way.

This past week, Microsoft announced that two media giants were finally coming to the Xbox: Comcast/Xfinity, with movies and TV shows from its large on-demand library; and the HBO Go service offering virtually every TV series, movie and documentary ever made by the pay-TV service: all episodes of “The Sopranos,” original movies such as “Angels in America” and more.

The good news is that both apps are free and easily downloadable on an Internet-connected Xbox. 

The bad news is that most of us won’t be able to watch them. And who should take the blame for this snafu: the company making the apps, or the company that allows the apps to be downloaded without notifying people that they are essentially useless to them?

Each app has some unfathomable restriction on its use, as I discovered once I downloaded both to my Xbox.

If you’re not familiar with the changing role of Xbox, here’s a quick explanation. Microsoft envisions the Xbox as a single set-top box that lets you can watch your favorite on-demand movies and TV shows, live TV, listen to your favorite music — and continue to use the Xbox to play all those fabulous games. Xbox’s huge installed base solves the biggest issue: getting devices into the hands of people. The box is already there.

I’m a Comcast subscriber, as are most of us with cable in the Puget Sound area. I expected the Xbox Comcast app activation to go smoothly until I received an ominous “Error 4004” on my TV screen with instructions to try activating the app later. I asked Comcast tech support for the meaning of “Error 4004.” Roughly translated, it means, “Sorry, Charlie, you don’t have Comcast Internet service.” In other words, despite the hundreds of dollars I pay monthly for Comcast premium cable service, I’m blocked from this newest Comcast service because I have another Internet provider, not their service.

Comcast did this same stupid pet trick last year when it introduced its Xfinity mobile app that lets you control your TV and record shows from a smartphone or tablet. It barred customers from using it unless you also had Comcast’s Internet service. It finally relented, dropping the Comcast Internet user requirement. Hopefully, sanity will prevail for its Xbox offering.

The HBO Go app also suffers from another Comcast marketing policy. 

Broadcast and cable TV companies have a “TV everywhere” system in place, letting you watch HBO, Cinemax, and other services on any computer, or Apple or Google mobile devices. In each case, you must be a cable subscriber, already paying for these services, and need your cable company’s authorization to access these services on your device.

Comcast has a hopscotch policy when it comes to the devices it supports for viewing HBO Go. You can watch it on a computer, smartphone, tablet, and on your TV via a Google TV set top box. If you want to watch it on a Roku or Xbox system, even though both offer the HBO Go app, you’re out of luck.

Despite numerous requests from me and other writers, Comcast refuses to comment on its inconsistent support for HBO Go.

And why does this constitute a Microsoft stumble? Because Microsoft either never did its homework to be sure that subscribers from Comcast, the nation’s largest cable system, would be given authorization to these desired apps, or, worse case, Microsoft chose to ignore Comcast’s viewing ban. Other cable companies have authorized their subscribers to view these apps on the Xbox, but Microsoft has issued no statement about viewers needing a Comcast Internet subscription, or Comcast’s refusal to authorize the Xbox HBO Go subscription.


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