On May 21, Microsoft revealed the next generation of their gaming-cum-entertainment console, Xbox. Dubbed XBOX ONE, officials made it a point to talk up the non-gaming aspects of the new console as much as, if not more than, the gaming aspects. Given that the reveal event was limited to an hour, and that this is a console that has not been updated for years, there were many questions raised than answers provided.
Some of the key questions, at least among the tech media revolve around the gaming aspects of the console, and whether it or the upcoming console from Sony, the Playstation 4 (PS4) would be the better device for gamers. The other aspect that has been questioned a lot is the live TV feature revealed by Microsoft. Eyebrows were raised when everyone realized that the live TV feature would be provided via HDMI input and IR blaster as opposed to TV tuners or cable cards.
This is typical of tech media nowadays. For whatever reason, they make anything that Microsoft does seem silly. Here’s my take on what the Xbox One represents for Microsoft and how some of the things that are in the console may make sense.
First, this was the first of many events where the Xbox team will talk about the various aspects of the console. Naturally, since there is so much information to disseminate, it would be too much to do all at once and in a reasonable amount of time. Remember how the Sony event went on for hours because they went into too much detail at a “launch” event? I think, Microsoft learned the lesson and kept it short and left it simply as a reveal event without going into too much (or any) detail with regard to the developer story, the policy for used games, etc. There are at least two known events in June where they will get a chance to talk about the Xbox One as well as Xbox 360: the E3 expo in early June, and the Microsoft developer conference, BUILD, in late June. The timing of the reveal event absolutely makes sense given that they can follow up on the story within weeks of the reveal.
As for gaming aspects, Microsoft did talk about the specs of the console which are a significant upgrade over the Xbox 360. They also talked about how the three OSes in the console work in a way to make it possible to instantly switch between apps and games without having to wait for the game to reload. Some have rightly pointed out that by pure specs, the Xbox One is inferior to the PS4. However, as we know, there is no point in having a higher spec gadget where the software or content cannot or does not take advantage of the higher spec. For example, the iPad with Retina Display had an issue when it shipped, where many of the popular apps were not Retina-ready and looked worse than they looked on the non-Retina iPads. So, we will have to wait and see how much better the graphics look on the PS4 before concluding that it is “better” than the Xbox One.
As for the games themselves, they showed some of the exclusives that are coming to Xbox One from large development shops like EA. Naturally, E3 is the more appropriate venue to talk more about the games that will be coming to the console when it launches, both from large shops as well as indie developers. Also, BUILD is the best venue to discuss the developer story, especially how Xbox plans to accommodate indie developers especially if the “guts” of the console are based on Windows 8. Can a developer, for example, build an app or a game for Windows 8 tablet and with minor modifications (like maybe Kinect support), publish it to the “Xbox Store”? I am of course making the assumption that there will be an Xbox Store, which has not been confirmed by Microsoft but again, between E3 and BUILD we should know for sure.
Now, regarding live TV and wasted resources (hardware and software) to support it via a combination of HDMI passthrough and IR blaster. The argument made is that these methods are backward and it was tried by Google TV and did not succeed at all. Let me just say that Google TV, among many other flaws, did not support voice like Xbox One is supposed to support. The demo at the reveal event showed how you could simply talk to the Xbox and switch from playing a game to watching a channel or a show just by voice. Google TV had a clunky remote that was really hard to use and perhaps the failure of Google TV was not the IR blaster as maybe the user experience itself.
Coming to the choice they made by not including TV tuners or cable cards, the same pundits complaining about these are also claiming that more and more entertainment is viewed without cable. There is evidence that at least in the US, many households are “cutting the cord” and living without cable. These households have not stopped watching TV, they just use services like Netflix, hulu, etc. to consume their content. If that is the case, and knowing that the Xbox console is built for at least a 7-10 years lifecycle, what is the point in supporting a dying technology? Why should the Xbox have the incremental cost bundled into it now, knowing that in maybe 3 years most of the content won’t be consumed via the cable box? The Xbox One has done the right thing by providing the equivalent of a USB dongle for floppy drives when floppy drives were eliminated from laptops. The HDMI-in and IR blaster will help transition away from the cable box. Even though they have to plan for the future, they still have to support the present and that’s what these ports allow them to do. The only issue I see so far, and we don’t know everything about it in detail yet, is the lack of a DVR in the console itself. That too could be a non-issue if the voice commands could bring up the DVR content from the cable box too.
The Xbox 360 has sold 76 million consoles in its lifetime so far, but I am sure Microsoft wants that to expand dramatically. Why wouldn’t they expect to have one in each household? In order to appeal to “non-gaming households”, Microsoft will have to make the console appealing to the casual gamers and non-gamers via their entertainment story as well as the ecosystem story. There is, after all, a potential to see apps written for Windows Phone that may work on Windows 8 and Xbox One (with code modifications to suit each device appropriately, of course). Pure gaming console market is surely on the decline, so targeting just the gamers by simply making the most powerful console on the market would be a waste of R&D resources. Instead, by making it reasonably competitive with the PS4 for gaming, and dramatically improving the other experiences like live TV, snapping two apps, Skype video conferencing in HD, completely overhauled Kinect with wide-angle 1080P camera that can see in the dark, exclusive partnership with the NFL, etc., Microsoft has a shot at becoming a permanent fixture in the living room.
Personally speaking, I am at best a casual gamer. I liked what I have seen so far. I do want to know how they are going to fit the developer pieces together and what are the chances of seeing a spurt in apps as well as the integration within the Windows ecosystem. By the end of June, I will know enough to decide if I am going to buy the console right away or not.
Are you excited about Xbox One? Sound off in the comments!