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November 15, 2012
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SmartGlass: Bridge to second screens, platform for qualified content

Second-screen application developers generally write to the device. With SmartGlass, Microsoft is asking app developers to do something slightly different, namely: write to a platform. But Microsoft is not asking just anyone to write this way; only those partners to its game developer network who have permission to do so.

That was one of the takeaways from a session led by Neil Black, Microsoft Principal Program Manager for the Xbox SmartGlass Platform, and offered during Build, a Microsoft software developer conference that took place in Redmond, Washington, Oct 30 – Nov 2.

The larger point may be that SmartGlass, which the Seattle software giant made generally available three weeks ago, at about the same time it released Windows 8, is itself both an app and a platform. That is one of several complicated aspects of this Xbox-related software. Another is its genesis as an app on the Windows Phone.

Called Xbox Companion, that app appeared about a year ago and was Microsoft’s initial “toe-in-the-water” into the companion application space, Black said. The app started with basic discovery and pairing of devices, added basic remote functionality and then expanded to include gesture-based control, media discovery and control, and metadata enhancements. “The new thing that we’re bringing to the table with SmartGlass this year is the idea of an extension point for developers,” he said.

Microsoft had reached that stage by early June 2012, when it reintroduced the former Xbox Companion app at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (3E) in Los Angeles. With its new name and extensions, SmartGlass generated “perhaps the biggest splash” at the start of that show, according to one CNN report.

Now available as an app on multiple (Windows Phone, Windows 8, Android, and iOS) devices, SmartGlass also acts as a platform insofar as an embedded browser enables developers to write “experiences” that connect to the Xbox and, working through the cloud with time markers, deliver content related to what is happening on the screen. “On Windows 8, it’s an embedded version of Internet Explorer; on iOS or Android, it’s running Webkit,” Black said. “The SmartGlass experiences are, at the end of the day, just HTML5/Java Script, running in this embedded browser.”

While writing to this app/platform sounds relatively easy, it is not available to just any code slinger. During Q&A at the end of this session, one attendee, frustrated that every search for the SmartGlass software development kit (SDK) resulted in a request for Microsoft employee or partner ID, asked if he could have a link.

Black confirmed that the SDK does require access. “The reason for this is that in order to create a SmartGlass experience, you need to have a corresponding Xbox title,” he said. Portfolio partners showcased on one of Black’s slides include HBO Go, Sesame Street, NBA Game Time, NBC News, Dance 3 Central, Halo, and Forza Horizon, among others.

Software blogger Long Zheng, who attended and wrote about the session, noted a “collective sigh” from the audience when the talk ended. The entire Build presentation is available on this Microsoft channel.