The beta trial of Microsoft’s vaunted expansion of its Xbox Live service will begin next week. No firm date has been set for the full release, but Microsoft is confident that it will be some time this fall.
Some of what’s in store, according to representatives from the Xbox Live team:
Netflix/Zune. Social media makes headlines these days, but this is the real news. Netflix is already one of the most popular features on Xbox live, and the new updates make it much easier to use, independent of a computer. Microsoft is also making videos available through its own Zune. Users can purchase movies for download, or ‘rent’ (i.e. live stream) them in standard or HD. The resolution automatically adjusts to the optimum level your bandwidth can manage. Instant access to a huge movie library in anything up to 1080p should be a huge draw.
Facebook. Why use Facebook on Xbox instead of your computer? Well, for one thing, your television screen is probably bigger and better than your monitor, and we all know that Facebook is for looking at pictures of women. You’ll be able to set-up automated slide shows of photos with ease. And while it probably won’t be ready at launch, down the line Facebook Connect will let gamers post screenshots and brag about their accomplishments without leaving their games.
Twitter. It’s a little harder to see what the angle is here; being on the Xbox doesn’t add much to Twitter. But Twitter fanatics like Twitter to be everywhere, so we’re sure it will get some use.
Last.fm. One of several music services that will be available, Last.fm works much the way it does on your computer. The Xbox Live team is hoping that people will start thinking of their service as something to leave on in the background while doing other things. Expect this to become more popular once you can run it in the background while gaming or using other applications.
Microsoft hopes these features will convince more casual gamers to join the 20 million users who subscribe to Xbox Live, and it seems very likely that they will. They’re also hoping to start drawing infrequent or non-gamers to the Xbox as a general entertainment platform. Maybe some day, but don’t count on it just yet.