Microsoft Eyes Wider Net as Xbox Turns to Entertainment

The Kinect has been an early hit for Microsoft, but an even bigger moment to celebrate will be if the new gaming accessory can help move the Xbox beyond the hard-core gamer demographic to appeal to a mass audience for general living-room entertainment.

In the first 25 days at market, Microsoft sold 2.5 million Kinect accessories and now aims to sell five million this holiday season. The sales helped the Xbox become the best-selling console in November.

The Kinect is a motion detection system similar to the Nintendo Wii, but is hands-free and doesn’t require any controllers. Xbox 360 owners can purchase one for $150.

During our visit last week to the Xbox offices in Redmond, Wash., Craig Davison, the senior director of marketing for Xbox LIVE, told us the goal is to broaden the audience for Xbox. He said the competition is no longer limited to PlayStation or the Wii, but extends to Google TV and Apple TV.

Hard-core gamers enthralled with Call of Duty and Halo may shudder at the prospect, but the trend is already in play.

But adding a new kind of player to the platform is critical if Microsoft wants the console to be an entertainment hub. Kinect allows users who’ve never picked up a controller to play, and brings new functionality to hardware, which historically has been marketed as something that must be replaced frequently.

Game console owners are most likely to use the boxes to play games and watch DVDs, but after that, Nielsen reports, entertainment services are a close third. Video-on-demand and streaming services such as Netflix, MLB Network and ESPN3 account for 20 percent of Wii users’ time, 10 percent of Xbox 360 users’ time and 9 percent of PlayStation 3 users’ time.

Davison said the demographics for Xbox started to shift in 2008 when it introduced Netflix streaming to the console. Since then, it has launched a partnership with ESPN, and will launch Hulu Plus early next year. It’s even helping out the top line: Close to 85 percent of Xbox Live’s revenues come from games, with the remainder coming from Zune, he said.

Here are some other numbers to consider:

–Since the launch of Zune on Xbox 360 in November 2009, the pace of HD movie and TV consumption–downloads and streaming–has more than doubled.

–In the last year, Microsoft has seen a 157 percent increase in the time spent watching movies over Xbox LIVE.

–42 percent of Xbox LIVE users who spring for Gold status at $59 a year are watching an average of one hour of TV or movies every day–or more than 30 hours a month.

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