“We’re at a tipping point with connected devices,” a recent blog post from Microsoft Microsoft‘s Internet Explorer team reads. “Every day, 3.6 million mobile devices and tablets are activated worldwide. That’s over five times more than the number of babies born each day!” They’ve got a point, but it is a sad irony for Microsoft that so few of those mobile devices run their software.
But Microsoft has sold more than 70 million Xbox 360s and has a very TV-centric followup, the Xbox One, coming in November. As Forbes.com contributor Tristan Louis points out in today’s post on Smarter TVs, ”the upcoming battle for the living room is a chance to redeem itself and turn its fortune around.” The parody video that Louis refers to shows all of the instances of the words “TV,” “television,” “sports” and “Call of Duty” in the launch announcement. Although the announcement raised the ire of hard core gamers, the emphasis on TV (and perhaps the two things TVs are most used for, watching sports and playing Call of Duty) must have been highly intentional.
Games have been Microsoft’s route into the living room, but that strong association is now an impediment to its more generalized assault of the living room. Non-gamers are probably thinking more about the future AppleApple TV than about the Xbox as their upgrade path to interactive TV. In response to this perception, Microsoft has launched a new program called “Companion Web.” The idea is to facilitate real time interactions between different devices. And because Microsoft has no footprint to speak of in the world of mobile, they are now trying to emerge as a unifying force between iOS and Android.
The problem Microsoft is trying to solve (other than the risk of their own irrelevance) is that “the majority of sites on the web are built for only one device at a time.” The user can search for related information to what they are watching on their TV, for instance, but real time it ain’t. And content owners can make second screen experiences, but they have tended to be operating system (and sometimes even device) specific. Microsoft is after a more generalized solution that does not impose an unmanageable burden on developers.
“Regardless of who makes the device or software that powers the device, the Companion Web enables the internet to bridge the gap between these devices,” the IE blog post reads. “For developers, Companion Web represents an opportunity to reuse code that works across multiple scenarios, enabling greater reach and ways to engage an audience. For consumers, Companion Web means you’ll seamlessly move from one device to the next, interacting with your photos, videos, music, movies, television shows, files, and more.”
Companion Web would seem to be a more generalized version of the Xbox SmartGlass, which also allowed you to interact with your TV via Windows devices and select iOS and Android devices, but only on very specific games and content. The promise of the Companion Web is of a much broader range of experiences that the user could have between devices.
So far, Microsoft has released three such “Companion Web experiences” working with outside developers. I became aware of the program through Luke Wroblewski who has created a version of his Polar app that works in this companion manner with Internet Explorer. As you can see in the video below, Polar uses IE’s snap mode to assign a “sidebar” portion of the screen (in this case a Surface tablet acts a s a proxy for a Windows 8/Xbox One enabled TV) to itself while the user uses the balance of the screen to watch Futurama.
Wroblewski demonstrates the ways that you can find polls with Polar about Futurama and watch the results update in real time while you are watching the show. You can imagine something like this being a lot of fun for big live TV events like the Oscars or the Super Bowl, where the amount of real time activity would be high and seeing how other people are reacting becomes part of the entertainment. Similarly, you can make up your own hashtags for polls in Polar so that the reactions you are monitoring are only a select group of people. Either way, mass or niche, the real time linkage with the content on the big screen really extends the idea of the Polar app by making these interactions available to a room full of people—each potentially interacting with their own mobile devices.
And, important to note (since this is IE, after all, that we are talking about) that this all uses standard open web technology. Specifically, Wroblewski tells me, Companion Web uses web sockets to create the real time connections between devices. He says, “you can make a connection between pretty much any two ‘modern’ Web browsers regardless of device.” One of the other really interesting things about the Polar demonstration is that, as I described in a recent post, it uses a multi-device web page that enables all kinds of input (touch, mouse and keyboard) depending on device. And in the Companion Web experience, all all of these inputs can be used to control the connected screen.
What the other “modern” browsers don’t have that Internet Explorer 10 has is this snap mode. If there was one thing that iOS 7 should have copied from Windows (instead of all that flatness stuff) it would have been snap mode. So these Companion Web experiences will work across virtually all devices (because they use standard web tech) but the Xbox One will retain an advantage of being the only way to uses these “companions” on the screen simultaneously with other activities. And Polar, I think, has shown how this could become a really powerful feature.
The other two Companion Web experiments released so far do not make use of this snap mode feature. DailyBurn, see video below, uses a smartphone or tablet to get real time data related to workouts you view on your TV. This app is clearly trying to appeal to users who may need some constructive excuse to get an Xbox One.
Mix Party, introduced in the (purposely?) obnoxious video below, allows people at a party to create real time, collaborative playlists with their phones. As with Polar, the real time aspect of this is part of the entertainment value. I’m not sure if DailyBurn is intended as a solo experience or if multiple people could monitor their own individual performance of a shared video workout or not, but Mix Party and Polar clearly have real time, fact to face interactions in mind.
What is interesting to me about this strategy is that there are some extra capabilities that Microsoft has built into IE 10/Xbox One (and likely will build more) that will give it an advantage as an app enabled web TV platform, but the apps developers write will also work well on all devices. This strategy of “progressive enhancement” is a comfortable one to developers because it keeps their options open. Allowing for these entropic possibilities is a smart way to get developers on board, which, in turn, could be the means to Microsoft’s resurgence through the big screen.