Sky Player on 360: A failure?

Everybody thought that Sky and Microsoft joining together would be a match made in heaven. In fact it was pretty much a failure from the word go.

The collaboration between the corporate giants which was announced a few days prior to the launch of the E3 Expo in Los Angeles caused an air of excitement amongst the media moguls and gamers alike.

This was the chance for some of the world’s richest men, Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates to partner up and offer the ultimate entertainment service from the comfort of the sofa. Conjoining the wealth of Sky programming with the millions of Xbox 360s that litter the home was potentially going to be one of the biggest money-spinners in history.

Launched in 1989, Sky initially was a flop with its parent company Sky Broadcasting Ltd struggling with debts, prompting it to joining forces with British Satellite Broadcasting in 1990 which was also struggling with the lack of uptake of satellite television. Both merged to form BskyB which continues to this day.

1998 saw the arrival of Sky Digital which was to revolutionize television and offer hundreds of channels with a variety of premium packages including Sports and Movie channels. Since then millions have taken advantage of the programming on offer and lined the pockets of Murdoch with billions.

Inevitably then it was perhaps only a matter of time with the launch of the Xbox 360 in 2005 that such a service would be available to dedicated gamers across the country. However restrictions upon the initial launch with the dashboard limited expansion with online gaming. During the latter part of 2008 though, the Xbox 360 was given the biggest overhaul yet.

A sleek and sexy new look was unveiled which expanded the possibility of offering entertainment media on the console. This was the re-launch of the Xbox 360, the rejuvenation that kick-started the new Xbox experience as it was dubbed: it was no longer just about the games, the whole package was to be offered to consumers.

The Film marketplace was the first instalment which would allow the streaming of films in both Standard and High Definition without the need to use a DVD. This was just the beginning of the new experience.

Even back in 2005, the streaming of media on the Xbox 360 console would have been fairly useless. Despite the rise in broadband connections, many people were still restricted in the content they could access due to limits and unreliable speeds. Today the latter is not a problem, but sadly some internet service providers still insist on petty limits. This is one reason why Sky Player on the Xbox 360 is still very much restricted.

Why then, the disappointment in offering a new consumable media to Xbox 360 gamers? When the service was initially announced, people dreamed about paying one off charges to watch premium sporting events and being able to access on-demand content as part of their Xbox Live subscription.

The dream soon turned to disappointed as Sky announced that a subscription fee would be charged for content and sporting events would not be available for one off payments. For many this was the nail in the coffin before it had even launched.

Sky would only be available to Xbox Live Gold service users and this costs £40 a year for most people. Those on the free package would be left out including a number of new features in the most recent update.

It was only the week before the service was due to launch that Sky and Microsoft officially revealed the plans for the service. In another turn off for gamers, it was revealed that the basic subscription would be £15 a month. When you compare that to a basic Sky package with channels and potentially a Sky HD box, it was very basic indeed.

Only 21 channels are available on the Sky Player for live streaming and some of those are premium ones including Sky Screen, Sky Sports and the ESPN Network. Whilst £15 may seem low, you realistically only get around 15 channels to watch and most of the line-up still today leaves a lot to be desired.

Still, the chance for those living in rented accommodation and student halls – the ability to have Sky without the need for a dish and a permanent subscription – was a step forward for a service which previously needed lengthy subscriptions and dishes being attached to all manner of external objects.

Great Britain awaited the 27th October when the service was to launch on the Xbox 360. Instead of a big fan fare, it launched with a cough and splutter, quite literally. Most new features for the Xbox have being beta tested by a lucky number in the weeks and months coming up to the worldwide roll-out. However with the Sky Player, both Microsoft and Sky decided to operate a soft beta testing period. Managers of retail stores and some others were the only ones given access to beta testing, just a week before it was due to launch.

Anyone with a few screws in their head will realise that testing out a service with a number of ‘varied’ users will give them a good indication of how the service works, and that ultimately screwed the Sky Player over when it launched on the 27th.

The demand for the application within the Xbox Live dashboard meant that instead of the re-birth of television entertainment, it was more like the an episode of Chucklevision; comical but for the wrong reasons. Within just an hour of launch, the service was pulled.

Microsoft issued apologies via other new technological mediums such as Twitter but offered no reason as to why it was taken down. People became impatient and those lucky ones who had downloaded it said it was plagued by streaming problems. Could Sky and Microsoft have met their match this time? The Internet.

Sure, the Internet is capable of many great things and even with the film marketplace we’d seen that HD content could be streamed without any problems technically. With the increase in broadband connections, quality has taken a compromise and Internet providers have started to ‘throttle’ heavy users including people streaming content such as on the Sky Player.

Throughout the week following the launch, the service was slowly rolled out to tens of thousands of Xbox Live customers and slowly but surely it actually began to work. But customers began to report that US shows such as House were missing all-together from the catch-up and programmes streaming live were also affected by ‘rights issues’. Once again the service had found another flaw: it distinctively lacked content compared to its brother on the PC.

So is this a huge failure for Sky and Microsoft? Whilst current Sky subscribers benefit from the service as well as allowing family members to access Sky content even without having to be in the same household, the service is over-priced and flawed. Streaming has improved since launch but at peak hours it can suffer and Sky need to take a long hard think before introducing HD content to the service, which is mooted for 2010.

Either way, the ethos of providing great entertainment has failed. People have turned their backs and refused to be a part of the new revolution. They say if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it, but Sky Player is broken and urgently needs a re-think. Whether it be streaming, rights issues, the horrendous monthly price and the lack of channels, it has all affected the service in some way. Sadly no thought was put into the technology and it goes out with a whimper before it has even kicked off.

This time Murdoch has met his match: the Xbox consumers.

Tell us below your experiences of the service. We’ll be following this up with your stories and the positives of the service at a later date.

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Rob Rymond

Currently residing between Solihull and Stoke, Rob is training to be a professional journalist at Staffordshire University. He has a wealth of experience under his belt and has been writing for 7 years despite only being 19. He thrives on news and reporting it but also dabbles with reviews as well from time to time. Outside of video games he is also a radio broadcaster (or DJ to me and you) and spends time with his girlfriend.

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