Microsoft has no idea what the fuck they are doing. This much has been obvious since last summer when they introduced “SmartGlass” as their next big “innovation”. I use sarcastic quotes because by “innovation” they mean using the tablet or smartphone you already own to do things the tablet or smartphone can natively do. Most damningly they took a preexisting Game of Thrones app for iPad, packaged it inside SmartGlass and pretended like this would change the world. It was an embarrassing attempt to insert an Xbox branded service where it does not belong.
Unfortunately, this buttinski attitude is obviously the guiding design principle behind the newly announced Xbox One. Before the reveal there was a ton of buzz about the potential for Microsoft to introduce something truly disruptive. Many speculated on the idea of an Xbox branded IPTV service, cable subscriptions not bounded by region, or exclusive, untethered HBO Go subscriptions. You know, something revolutionary. What they unveiled was Nintendo’s TVii, take two.
I mean that literally. Despite impressions to the contrary, it is not itself a DVR. The Xbox One’s most vaunted innovation is in actuality a glorified universal remote and programming guide. By virtue of using HDMI passthrough from your existing cable box or DVR, it does solve one of TVii’s biggest flaws: that the WiiU never knows if you’ve set your TV to the correct input. Every other flaw remains. You can’t program your DVR to record anything through the Xbox interface. You can’t see what was saved from last night and start playing a recorded episode. You can’t browse your OnDemand library, or order pay-per-view. Keep your shitty Comcast remote handy for that. But at least that $500 saved you the trouble of pressing the input button once, eh?
But that’s okay, MS had other innovations to demonstrate, like Xbox Snap. The Xbox One has been specifically engineered for smooth multitasking, to the point that it basically runs three separate operating systems including a master hypervisor and two virtual machines, one runs the Windows kernel and various media and communication apps, and the other houses a game specific OS packaged with the game itself runs. Both systems are always running with guaranteed access to system resources and no contention to create roadblocks to seamlessly swapping between the two. And how does MS put this technical achievement to use? To put your smartphone screen on your TV.
Not literally, of course. But it’s obvious the same over the hill executives who thought people would love to use an Xbox app on their phone to do things their phone was built to do are also under the delusion that if people love to use their iOS and Android apps so much while they’re on the couch in front of their TV, obviously they’d love to have the same types of apps overlayed onto their TV screen as well. Why use your phone to order a pizza while you watch Netflix on your Xbox One when you can use your phone to control the Xbox One’s Pizza Hut app snapped to the edge of your TV screen, shrinking your view of Breaking Bad? Ingenious!
These pathetic attempts to insert themselves into arenas where Xbox simply is not needed reek of one thing: desperation. Microsoft is terrified for two very good reasons. First, they are terrified that customers will use this generational shift as a reason to reevaluate their dependence on paid Xbox Live Gold memberships. To combat this Microsoft is continually inventing new “features” that exist almost entirely to live behind a paywall and make the ongoing expense appear worthwhile. Second, the mobile revolution has utterly left them behind. They have been completely left out of the Android and iOS revolution that transformed the way people communicate and consume the internet and media. They are hoping that the Xbox brand and an antiquated assumption that one particular TV represents a household focal point can be used as a wedge to regain a foothold in markets that could not care less about Windows.
This is very nearly as backwards as the false premises Nintendo built the WiiU around. Families have many TVs. Games are played as often in dens or bedrooms or basements or offices as they are in living rooms. The real revolution in television consumption happening right now, setting aside cord-cutting, is whole home DVRs. The idea that one TV is enough died long ago. Now Cable and satellite providers are chasing whole home solutions like the Hopper or Genie which record 5-6 shows at once and serve those recordings to every screen in the house.
And yet all of this would be forgivable if there was a sense MS had any real commitment to games. In a presentation that ran over it’s allotted hour television slot 33 minutes elapsed before the first game was introduced. Of the 7 games announced 5 are multiplatform. Not a single game was demonstrated playable in stage. In fact, of all the game footage shown there was less than 2 seconds worth that even appeared to be real gameplay, and that was buried in the Call of Duty: Ghosts trailer. It’s not like they didn’t have time for a real demonstration. Both the Call of Duty and EA Sports packages were preceded by lengthy interview montages, in the case of Call of Duty this included footage of essentially every scene that would appear in the proper trailer. Microsoft can plead that E3 is their big game blowout all they want, the truth is you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. There was more than enough time to show something real, something tangible and instead they chose to demonstrate changing channels with your voice, TWICE.
The only real interesting gaming feature is the vaunted multitasking capabilities. The ability to suspend a game anywhere, restart instantly and swap out to use Netflix or a web browser or other apps is a long time coming for these consoles. Microsoft’s virtual machine architecture is founded on maintaining the quality of service and that should pay dividends, even if it does mean dedicating less than the full power of the machine for actual games.
But the real irony is the PS4 is going to multitask, too. MS might want you to believe they’ve invented the idea, and yet things like instantly suspending your game, switching to another app, checking the web, updating your twitter, all without needing to save your game or quit out, are things the PlayStation Vita does right now, including Skype. And given that, we have every reason to believe the PS4 will happily suspend games, switch to streamed video, load up a custom music playlist and allow for video-chatting very smoothly.
The Xbox One’s market position is fraught with dangers, even without addressing flashpoints like used game sales, always on requirements or access for indie game developers (or the pie in the sky promises of games being augmented by cloud computing). You need not even engage in those to debates to have serious doubts about Microsoft’s strategy. Not since Windows 8 has a Microsoft product been so myopic about how people want to interface with technology. Without the kind of good fortune that handed the 360 a year long advantage in time to market significant price advantage they will have great difficulty convincing knowledgeable early adopters to bite. As we saw with the Microsoft Kin, billion dollar marketing campaigns can’t save a product that badly misjudges what customers really want.