Ian Burrell: Microsoft unveils secret weapon in war for the future of entertainment

Media Studies: The arrival of the SmartGlass app will coincide with the launch of Microsoft's new Windows 8 technology
  • @iburrell

You might not be used to barking orders at your television set, except to bellow dissatisfaction at a minister's responses in a Jeremy Paxman interview on Newsnight. Nor might you be used to gesturing at the screen, unless it's to wave your fist at the sight of Piers Morgan or Simon Cowell.

But perhaps you should get used to voice and gesture recognition behaviour. Microsoft's Xbox – known to many as a video-games console for indulging in shoot-'em-up pastimes such as Call of Duty or Battlefield – is about to make its big play to be the control system for all your home entertainment.

Not only that but the introduction of its SmartGlass technology, unveiled by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his team this month, will allow users to continue watching, playing and interacting with Xbox content via their phones and tablets too.

The arrival of the SmartGlass app in the final quarter of this year will coincide with the critical launch of Microsoft's new Windows 8 technology, including new smartphones and tablets all based on the distinctive "smart tiles" interface already present on Xbox. But it is SmartGlass's compatibility with Apple's iOS and Google's Android, which gives Xbox the chance to dominate the living room.

SmartGlass is recognition of the now common practice of dual screening – watching a TV show or film while using a laptop, phone or tablet simultaneously, often to comment to friends on social-media sites about what you are watching.

What will make it a game changer is if Xbox's content partners – broadcasters, film studios, etc – are able to provide SmartGlass with sufficient additional features that your viewing experience is transformed.

Explaining the new system at Microsoft's giant campus in Reading, senior company executive Neil Thompson compares the potential to the bonus DVDs sold with feature films.

The battle to control the home entertainment market is at a critical juncture and Microsoft faces serious competition. BSkyB, Virgin Media and the BBC-supported YouView project are among those developing fresh living-room products designed to realise the potential of internet-based television.

But Thompson claims that with the new Xbox features there's no need to go out and buy a fancy state-of-the-art television set at all. "We can give people the ability to make whatever TV they have got now into a smart TV," he says.

Launched in 2002, the Xbox experience has changed dramatically. It carries the BBC iPlayer and, for a £39.99 Xbox Live annual subscription on top of the console outlay of £149, a wide range of on-demand television and film services from partners such as Channel 4, Lovefilm, Netflix and Blinkbox. It has a vast library of music and video from Microsoft's own Zune service and users can access the Internet on their television screen via Microsoft's Bing search engine.

But even with the launch of SmartGlass it won't be for everyone. Some think they have spent enough already on home entertainment in paying their licence fee – possibly in addition to a cable or satellite subscription. Others won't much fancy the idea of taking turns with viewing partners to "take control" of the screen by waving their arms from the sofa, or shouting instructions that begin with the command "Xbox!..." The typical Radio 4 listener may not be overly excited at the prospect of creating an avatar for themselves or spending money on a T-shirt to dress said avatar as it pops up on screen to wave hello.

But Neil Thompson, of course, needs no convincing. "This is the year when it actually happens," he says of the launch of Windows 8 and SmartGlass. "This is the moment of truth for the company."

Could losses mean less is more for The Guardian?

With sales of The Guardian down 18 per cent year-on-year to 214,703, its printing operation is haemorrhaging money as Guardian Media Group prepares to announce annual losses of around £45m.

The Guardian has been cutting pagination and dropping its supplements. But with newsprint so expensive, chief executive Andrew Miller is thought to be keen on replacing the paper's hefty "Berliner" shape and downsizing to tabloid. Printing could be done by another newspaper group, such as Trinity Mirror. Editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger, who introduced the Berliner paper in 2005 and championed the £80m presses that now stand idle for large parts of the day, is opposed to the idea. Unfortunately for GMG – which said it "remains absolutely committed" to the Berliner – its print centres in London and Manchester are subject to long lease agreements and there is no outside interest in those groundbreaking but expensive presses. Except, perhaps, in Berlin?

Andrew Jennings vs BBC Sport

The Olympics are almost upon us and a football tournament is in progress. So thoughts turn to Andrew Jennings, door-stepping scourge of the international sporting establishment and – it transpires – scourge of BBC Sport too. Jennings actually claims to be on a BBC Sport "blacklist" which will surprise those who know his work for BBC1's Panorama exposing corruption at the International Olympic Committee and football's governing body FIFA. Angry, he has written a piece for the British Journalism Review accusing the sports press of being "masseurs" of the image of the federations and being in hock to spin doctors.

"Global media respects me as the world expert on FIFA corruption, foreign TV crews travel to my remote Cumbrian farmhouse," he tells me. "I am never invited to participate in BBC Sport's programmes."

Jennings enjoys more respect in Brazil, where Internacional fans unfurled a banner of the leather-jacketed reporter in honour of his investigations into Brazil football chief Ricardo Teixeira.