Without iOS and Android support at launch, Microsoft’s Smartglass is as good as dead
Update: It looks like SmartGlass has been released for Android devices! Microsoft unveiled SmartGlass at this year’s E3, and the technology seemed impressive. Your existing tablets and smartphones could interact with your Xbox 360 games, acting as controllers or just a second screen to give information to the player. I have two games that offer SmartGlass support right now: Forza Horizon and Dance Central 3. The feature launches this Friday, and Smartglass could go a long way to heading off Nintendo’s buzz at the pass. Your 360 can already do what the Wii U is selling, and you already own the hardware you need to make it happen! You don’t need to buy anything new! That’s the promise at least. The reality is that Microsoft may strangle the feature during its infancy by limiting Smartglass support for Microsoft devices at launch. When will iOS and Android tablets and phones get to play? No one seems to know.
Microsoft announced that SmartGlass was launching this Friday, but only promised support on its own devices. Go through the official communication and try to figure out when the rest of us will get to play. Confused yet? You should be, Microsoft seems happy to issue vague promises about when the feature will be given a wide release. Xbox Live product manager Pav Bhardwaj said that Windows 8 PCs and Surface tablets will be able to use SmartGlass this Friday, but that’s all he knows for sure. “We've worked really hard to make sure that the Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 experience is optimal and perfect,” he told Digital Spy. “Once those are out the way, we'll then start to make any announcements for anything else beyond that, but we think it'll be within the next six months.” Other outlets are reporting that SmartGlass won’t come to iOS or Android devices until 2013, and I contacted Microsoft directly for comment. The clarification was vague, and didn’t give me much hope. “Xbox SmartGlass launches on Windows 8 tablets and PCs on Oct. 26. It will be available on Windows Phone 8 when those devices launch,” the company told the Penny Arcade Report. “Xbox SmartGlass will become available on select iOS and Android models soon. We have nothing further to announce at this time.” Windows 8 PCs are useless for the sort of experience SmartGlass wants to bring to gamers, and Surface tablets will be a niche product for some time. Microsoft needs iOS and Android support for the feature to find an audience. “The company is keeping very quiet about production volumes and expected sales figures. There are a few predictions and rumors floating around, putting expectations in the region of low millions,” Ars Technica reported. “That's a smaller scale than, for example, Amazon's Kindle Fire or Google's Nexus 7, but still substantial for a first product.” The Surface tablets and Windows Phone 8 will give SmartGlass a tiny installed base of users, which sends a strong message to developers: don’t use SmartGlass, no one will be able to access the content. When can the vast majority of everyone play? Who knows? Have a nice day. This isn't the launch of a feature, it's a middle finger. iOS and Android support isn't a neat thing they should be trying to achieve, it's absolutely mandatory for SmartGlass to succeed.
The importance of a wide audience
The drawing power of SmartGlass is that it does things the Wii U is promising, using hardware you already have. At E3 the company stressed that the feature will work on tablets and phones you already own. Microsoft will kill that promise if iOS and Android support doesn't come on Friday.On Friday, when the feature goes live, only Surface owners will be sure to have access to SmartGlass in the way it was intended, limiting the feature to a tiny amount of possible users. It’s not interesting enough to be a selling point for the new tablets, and by trying to keep the initiative locked into its own devices Microsoft is ensuring a lack of developer support. There may be gamers who own a 360, Kinect, Dance Central 3, and a Surface tablet, but not many of them. Compare that with Android and iOS devices. Apple announced that there are 200 million iOS devices running iOS 6, and that’s not including the phones and iPads that have yet to be upgraded to the newest version of the operating system. Last June Google announced that 400 million Android devices have been sold. If you have an Xbox 360, you are almost assured to have an iOS or Android tablet or phone. By launching on those devices SmartGlass would enjoy what amounts to a 100 percent installed base. Developers would be stupid not to support it, and they would have a great bullet point to put on the box. Microsoft's lack of strong communication on this issue is maddening, especially when they seem to be saying it could be a while before we see iOS and Android support. It gets worse, as developers have expressed their own frustration at a lack of communication from Microsoft on launch timing to the Penny Arcade Report, and they also lack information about when wider support is expected. It’s bad enough that consumers are left in the dark, but the greater problem is that the developers are likewise starved for information they need to plan SmartGlass support. Budgets are tightening, and time is always at a premium during development. No one is going to spend either resource supporting a feature that no one will be able to use, and Microsoft’s refusal to share information with its development partners destroys trust. If the company behind SmartGlass barely seems aware of what's going on, developers don't stand a chance. SmartGlass is deviously clever. By using existing tablets and phones as a second screen or touch device, the 360 could deliver any number of interesting game play ideas, and take a significant chunk of the Wii U’s buzz. Unfortunately, Microsoft has never found a good idea it couldn’t mess up, and the company seems determined to smother its own baby with a pillow. The choice is simple: either launch SmartGlass on iOS or Android devices now, or doom SmartGlass to obscurity. The good news is that sources have told me that despite the poor communication and lack of assurances from Microsoft, SmartGlass still has the chance to launch on at least iOS devices on Friday. Let's hope that happens; SmartGlass is too promising to kill before it has a chance to show what it can do.