It's Time for Xbox Live Gold to Be Free

By Brian Barrett on at

If you didn't catch Microsoft's press conference at E3 today, here's a brief recap: game, game, XBOX LIVE CONTENT STREAMING SPORTS MUSIC APPS, South Park game, exeunt. The message was clear. The Xbox 360 is officially one of the best set-top boxes in the world.

So you know what? It's time to start acting like one.

Hulu Plus. Netflix. Amazon Instant Video. Crackle. ESPN. Even before today's additions of NBA League Pass and NHL streaming in America, Microsoft's Xbox Live Gold offering more than held its own against top-tier streaming boxes like Roku and Apple TV. The console costs twice as much as those two, sure, but it's also a video game/DVD player and a Windows Media Center powerhouse. Totally worth it.

But you know what's downright unjustifiable? The fact that Microsoft charges ten bucks a month (or £40 for a full year) to access any of it. All that money, just for the privilege of paying another subscription for the likes of Lovefilm and Netflix. And it raises the question: Why would I go to the club that has a cover charge when there are three right next door—each almost exactly identical—that'll let me in for free? Xbox 360 might offer great streaming, but it's also got a hell of a moat.

Yes, your Xbox Live Gold membership includes online gaming. And Microsoft is totally within its rights to charge for that; it's an added value experience unique to its ecosystem. That's worth something. And a few years ago, playing FIFA or Halo or Madden online is why most people signed up for Xbox Live Gold in the first place. Back then, charging everyone a fee to get in on the online action—and throwing in a couple of apps on the side—made sense.

But the calculus has changed. If today's E3 event proved anything, it's that streaming services aren't just the sideshow anymore; they've got a spot in the main tent right alongside Master Chief. Microsoft is focused on making the Xbox the beating heart of your home theatre and when SmartGlass arrives later this year, you're going to route every piece of content you own through your Xbox.

All of which is wonderful. It's a beautiful future, and one that's never going to happen if Microsoft keeps a velvet rope up around all those wonderful services. It's frustrating enough to pay once for things that used to be free. Xbox Live Gold makes you pay twice. (Not to mention that it does so in the most useless, annoying, proprietary, how-are-they-still-doing-this way possible: Xbox Live points.)

So let's try this, Microsoft: Forget subsidising a cheaper Xbox with a more expensive Xbox Live plan. Go ahead and charge a monthly fee for online gaming. Do it in Xbox Live points or yuan or mustard green bushels for all I care. But leave the services your customers are already paying good money for—and that every other set-top box serves up for them free—out of it. Catch up with the present before you try to plant your flag on the future. Do that, and my living room is yours.

Or don't! There's a perfectly nice gentleman over to your right who's more than happy to give Hulu Plus away. Instead of, you know, charging me for it twice.