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Weekend Tech Scan: A Microsoft misstep

Xbox tiles interface Credit: 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.

Microsoft’s mishandling of this situation follows Google’s colossal failure in the TV set-top box business: It introduced the Google TV set-top box promising that it would allow people to search and watch top-rated network programs both on free Internet sites and on your cable box’s TV. Almost every broadcast and cable network banned Google TV from accessing their programs, resulting in the system being crippled from the start.

The press is only starting to understand the limitations of Xfinity and HBO Go on the Xbox.

Microsoft would be wise to keep its millions of Xbox owners in the loop about these issues or risk having this turn into another negative Microsoft media storm.

On a somewhat different note, there’s a new shopper’s website that may not have the side or scope of Amazon.com, but it offers something that few product websites have: products made entirely in the United States.

The site is called KeepAmerica.com, and its premise is to give American-made products a home base on the Internet.

I first heard about the site when its founder, David Seliktar, appeared as a guest this week on MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan show. Here’s the video clip.

The idea behind the site is simple: if people buy American-made products, it will keep jobs here and contribute to the economy. Its vision is to foster interest in producing safe, high quality. Eventually, KeepAmerica would like to create bricks and mortar franchise stores where people could shop and buy U.S.-made products.

The product catalog is somewhat limited: apparel, sports, toys, and automotive products are among the 12 categories. Electronics products are in short supply. In many ways, just viewing the KeepAmerica catalog is a sad commentary on how few products we use that carry the “Made in USA” tag.

KeepAmerica is currently running a contest to encourage people to help locate potential products to be sold through the website. If you upload a picture of an American-made product to the website, you will be eligible to win a 2012 Ford Mustang. For your picture, you will also receive five more entries. Here’s the entry page.

For more information about the company’s aims and goals, this press release may be useful.

KeepAmerica.com is hardly the only all-American selling website. For instance, I also found a site called “BuyAmerican.com” that claims to have over 700 American-made products for sale.

I come from a generation that looked on the concept of “Made in the U.S.A.” as emblematic of a narrow-minded chauvinism that all right-thinking Americans should avoid. Maybe in the long run we were simply wrong.

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