Q&A with Xbox LIVE’s Marc Whitten

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Microsoft will be pushing out the second half of the Xbox LIVE update that was previewed at E3 some time tonight. With it comes all manner of social networking applications, like Facebook, Twitter and Last.fm. Another component of the update includes instant on 1080p videos with full 5.1 surround sound via the Zune Marketplace. Most of you have known about this update for some time and we’re just reminding you to turn on your Xbox in the morning to install the update. The aforementioned features are privy to Xbox LIVE Gold members, but between November 20 (12 pm ET) and November 23 (12 pm ET), Silver members will get a taste of what’s new in the update.

We sat down with Marc Whitten, GM of Xbox LIVE last week and had a candid conversation about the update and what the LIVE team is working on next.

TECHLAND: So, the PS3 now is streaming Netflix. And rumors are going around that the PS3 will also be getting a Facebook app. Is this a concern for Xbox?

Marc Whitten: What I would tell you is that we’re focused on building social entertainment experiences in the living room. I totally think that Facebook on the television makes an amazing amount of sense and you need to build great and amazing experiences around that including Netflix. If you look at all of the people who are looking to build this functionality into the living room it serves as validation for us and the vision LIVE has had for a long time. I see the world as full of opportunity and people don’t expect near enough out of what their living room should provide them. Microsoft and Xbox LIVE has a great position in this space because of what we’ve seen happen with games and why going online was amazing and unique. But we realized that it was applicable beyond just games. We won’t be the only ones to try things in the living room, but I’m comfortable and passionate with the way we’re thinking about that world and what we’re trying to accomplish.

TECHLAND: What’s the process like for pushing out updates like this?

MW: When we launched the New Xbox Experience a lot of people talked about NXE because they saw a new user aesthetic and it was different and pretty. It looked different than what it was before. That was sort of point with that update, but our main focus was moving LIVE from this static UI experience into a dynamic media portal that’s really focused on tracking and evolving with how media is constantly changing. It’s about evaluating what our users are doing and reacting to that and rolling out innovations faster in a unique way.

At a process level, we have a 3-year plan and 5-year plan for LIVE but inside of that what we’re constantly doing is watching and learning and imagining what the next great experience to power LIVE will be and finding ways to get that out there.

TECHLAND: How far back in LIVE’s upcoming update have things like Facebook and Twitter been planned?

MW: Long before we had shipped NXE, we had a number of good brainstorming discussions around what some of those next experiences would be and how we would get them done. It didn’t take a long time to get those built. We’ve been working on them for less than a year. That’s part of the power of what we can do on 360.

TECHLAND: I think Twitter is a fad. What happens if Twitter bombs tomorrow and they shut down?

MW: Umm. I don’t know that I think it’s a fad, but it has an interesting role just like Facebook does. It’s all about the entertainment experiences that people want to have together and we’re going to see that change in new and unique ways.

LIVE will be a constantly evolving service that connects the best experiences you can imagine on the Web in a new and unique way in the living room. Our focus is around why would something be special in the living room. We live in a world where new entertainment experiences will come and go and constantly change. LIVE will constantly change with it.

TECHLAND: What’s the catalog like for instant on video service through the Zune Marketplace?

MW: We have 25,000 pieces of TV and movie content in the catalog and it’s constantly growing. We have every major network and studio with the latest blockbusters and hits from the past. I’m pretty busy and I don’t get to go to the movies much. I watch most major movies through my Xbox. I saw the Dark Knight and a few other movies for the first time through the service. It’s a truly instantaneous gratification experience because that’s the magic of television and video. It’s not super premeditated. It’s usually, like, what am I in the mood for? It’s a fundamentally different experience when you have an idea to watch something and then have it happen immediately.

TECHLAND: I’ve noticed that Windows 7, the new Zune interface and even Windows Mobile 7 all look very similar. Will the Xbox’s UI fall in line with the rest of Microsoft’s products or will it stand on its own the way it has been?

MW: I’ll go back to our mission statement, which is the entertainment you want with the people you care about wherever you are. I measure everything we do against whether or not we’re checking off boxes in those three areas and how much progress we’re making so that things are seamless. You may have heard Robbie Bach talk about three screens and a cloud and how to make the entertainment experience seamlessly flow is a huge part of where we’re going with LIVE and our overall vision. The true value of LIVE is the 20 million people that are participating together all the time and that’s the number that will continue to grow and they will continue to start to do things in new ways across these devices. That’s the world we’re sort of actively building towards.

TECHLAND: Will Natal’s launch factor into or change the UI of LIVE or will it remain the same?

MW: We’re not really discussing that part of the road map yet, but here’s what I will tell you. Our vision is how to make the magic of LIVE, the magic of entertainment and the magic of social a seamless and simple experience for everyone. That’s our vision around input and how to create the tools to make things simple for everyone to experience. I’m sure you can read between the lines.

TECHLAND: So the video you showed off at E3 this year is what we should expect to see from Natal. Is that right?

MW: Absolutely.