Imagine going on vacation this fall and you are taking your brand new Windows 8 laptop with you, in part to play movies on the long flight for your 3-year-old. The plane takes off, you slip in your toddler's favorite Disney DVD, and...nothing. Nada. It won't play.
That brand new laptop doesn't have the software to play a DVD. What a terrible mistake! What an oversight! How could this have happened on a new machine with the latest version of Windows?
Microsoft has decided consumers don't need software for watching DVDs Blu-ray discs or broadcast TV in the version of Windows coming this fall, and so without purchasing an add-on pack from Microsoft or a third-party vendor you will not be able to watch a DVD like you can on your current Windows machine.
I was astounded when I first heard this news, then thought about it a moment and realized it had been two years or more since I last watched a DVD on my laptop.
The easy explanation for this is that more and more, people watch streaming videos or pay per view. Your neighborhood Blockbuster went out of business for a reason.
But there's more to it than that. PCs used to be the center of all things digital in the family home: part office, part educational, part communication, part entertainment. They were the one and only way to connect to the Internet.
Not so anymore. Increasingly PCs have been pushed aside, now used mainly for work in the home office. We use smartphones and tablets, smart TVs or entertainment consoles for the rest, in the bedroom, the living room or on the go.
Microsoft's announcement this month was a straight-up business decision. Licensing the codecs to play DVDs, Blu-ray or broadcast TV video costs money, and the tech giant is under pressure from hardware manufacturers to keep the price of Windows 8 down – particularly since in the tablet version it will be competing with Apple, which makes its own operating system, and tablets running Android, an OS licensed from Google for free.
An Xbox In Every Living Room
At least another announcement from Redmond reflects a happier side to these same changes: Microsoft is offering a 4 GB Xbox 360 entertainment center, bundled with a Kinect controller, a bundle normally priced around $300, for just $99 in return for a two-year commitment to its Xbox Live Gold online service.
While perhaps not originally intended for this, the Xbox has become Microsoft's Trojan horse in the battle for the digital connected living room. Rumors abound that Apple will be launching a smart TV later this year; most new TVs now are just as adept at streaming video from the Internet as from a cable set-top box.
And so we stream our video from Netflix, Blockbuster or YouTube, or from Amazon or Hulu or Crackle, or from any of dozens of Internet channels, including ones by HBO, ESPN or from the networks themselves, like Fox or the Comedy Channel.
For those of us without the newest so-called smart TVs, we have to find ways to make our current TVs smart without buying a new television. There are several ways to do this: Buy an Internet-ready set-top box like those made by Roku, Google, Sony and others; or a new DVD or Blu-ray player with Internet capability, or – hey, look over there. I have an Xbox already hooked up to my TV, and it's hooked up to the Internet!
There are some 70 million Xboxes in homes everywhere, and more than half are subscribed to Xbox Live, Microsoft's online service available through the Internet. With the advent of streaming music and movie services, Microsoft came to realize last year that the Xbox, a "video game console" whose most important feature was the disc player in the front, could be morphed into an "entertainment console" whose most important feature was the Ethernet port connecting to Xbox Live in the back.
In December the company completely revamped its Xbox Live service and made it work smoothly with the Kinect controller so that you can use voice commands instead of a remote control, a futuristic feature widely expected from Apple if and when it does introduce its smart TV. Microsoft also partnered with several streaming services to greatly beef up its Internet channel lineup.
This month it's experimenting with the cellphone model for pricing, dropping the initial price for an Xbox 360 with Kinect controller to $99 but then requiring a two-year commitment to $14.99 monthly premium pricing for its Xbox Live Gold service. Ordinarily a subscription to Xbox Live is $4.99 monthly, but for a cash-strapped consumer who would be paying the online subscription anyway, the difference amounts to an additional $1.67 a month for not having to pay the full $300 purchase price up front.
Microsoft's motivation is to hook as many online subscribers as possible so that the Xbox becomes the de facto smart TV device in many people's living rooms. With the PC cut out of its central place in the home, the company hopes to use the Xbox to own the living room. If the pricing experiment works—and it works for consumers when it comes to buying smartphones—it may become a standard offer when the company introduces its next-generation Xbox in a year or two.
The experimental offer is only available through Microsoft's retail storefronts, and there are just 17 stores throughout the country. Lucky us here in San Diego, one is at the Fashion Valley mall. You have to show up in person, and ask for "offer code 885370366266" to get signed up.
And so while you may miss the DVD player software on your new Windows 8 machine this fall, Microsoft wants to make it up to you. Buy an Xbox for cheap and you can play your DVDs on that, and a lot more.