Xbox One could be Xbox Won
Wired has an excellent writeup of the new Xbox One. It was just revealed to the public yesterday, but Peter Rubin got to spend some quality time with one over the last few weeks -- the lucky bastard. It's an impressive piece of hardware, like any new console should be. But here's what I think makes it a winner:
When the 360 launched, smartphones hadn’t yet trickled out of the corporate world; Netflix was strictly a DVD delivery service; the “cloud” was something that got in the way of a suntan. (Hell, in 2005, people suntanned.) And a big part of the 360’s longevity was Microsoft’s ability not only to develop games but also to forge partnerships that took advantage of these new staples of online life. So as those deals proliferated, so did the things the Xbox 360 could do. People played Halo 3 on their Xbox, but they also watched Netflix. They bought Kinect sensors for controller-free experiences, but they also burned through seasons of Deadwood on HBO Go and caught sports highlights on an ESPN app. But all of this new functionality was built on patches and firmware updates. The 360 simply wasn’t constructed that way, so when the Xbox One was greenlit in the fall of 2011, “the decision wasn’t, ‘We need a gamebox,’” Whitten says. “It was, ‘We need a living-room experience.’” Built that way from the ground up.
This is Microsoft playing at the absolute top of its game (no pun intended). They've leveraged everything they've learned about gaming, consoles, services, and streaming, and worked them together into a single system. To call the Xbox One a mere "console" is to undersell what it is and what it does. This is an entertainment system-in-a-box, all for a few hundred dollars.
How was Microsoft able to do this, when they've pretty much flubbed every single other consumer device they've tried to build in the last few years? How did the company that build the ill-fated Zune with its infamous "Squirt" feature manage to get something so spectacularly right?
The secret may go back to the original Xbox, which Microsoft took great pains to avoid labeling a Microsoft product. This was the Xbox -- not the Microsoft Xbox, not the Windows Box, not the Microsoft Console for Gamers with Controllers Edition. They wisely threw away all their typical, hamfisted nomenclature and just called it "Xbox."
They did that partly because too-cool-for-school gamers would have turned up their noses at anything bearing the Microsoft label. But also it gave Redmond's gaming division a little freedom from the company's button-down straightjacket. This wasn't the beige box from your dad's office; this was a pure gaming rig.
It worked. Xbox never dethroned the Playstation 2, but it bought Microsoft all the cred it needed to compete in the living room. And Xbox 360 has gone toe-to-toe with the Playstation 3, and generally come up winning.
If any single company is going to dominate the living for the next ten years (which I doubt, but it is possible), that company will probably be Microsoft. If they execute on the hardware -- no more Red Rings of Death -- I full expect the Xbox One at the very least to become the first among equals. Sony and Apple had better be sweating. And Nintendo had best figure out a way to tie its handheld business into somebody else's console.
But none of that is the real point. I didn't mean to write a review of a gaming system I haven't yet played. What I do see here is a remarkable -- but probably wasted -- opportunity for Microsoft.
Redmond has completely fumbled in mobile. Windows CE (aka "WinCE") was the answer to the question nobody was asking: "Is there a phone I can buy that's as crappy as Windows?" Windows Phone wasn't the answer to the question everybody was asking: "What's the alternative to iPhone?" Redmond jumped into portable music players with the craptaculent Zune, just in time for Apple to pull the rug out from under the mobile music player market by giving them away free with every iPhone. And did you know that Microsoft invented the tablet computer a decade ago? Neither does anyone else!
There's more fail I could detail for you, but I'm feeling merciful.
But then there's Xbox, where Microsoft showed how to make a winning consumer product by
• Making it good
• Not trying to make it conform to the Microsoft Way.
Is it too late to apply these lessons to mobile? Instead of forcing "Windows Everywhere" -- into the phone you won't buy, onto the tablet with no apps, wherever -- why not go with the one winning consumer brand Redmond already has?
The Xbox Phone does everything your Xbox does, plus it makes phone calls and acts as a cool remote/controller/futuristic-applications for your console. They talk to each other in all sorts of cool, streamy, cloud-based ways. The Xbox Tablet does all that, too, but with a bigger, brighter screen. They function together as an ecosystem -- the ecosystem MS has failed to build for its three -- three -- mutually-incompatible mobile OSes. Scrap Windows Phone and Windows RT and Windows 8 Pro for Fingers and Stylus and Mice and Stuff. Replace them all with "Xbox Go" or whatever the marketing weasels want to call it.
Wipe the slate (no pun intended) clean of all the geeky awfulness which has ruined Microsoft's mobile efforts, and expand the non-geek brand 80 million Xbox owners already know and love.
Microsoft has done this once already. They could do it again.
UPDATE: The gamers' long knives came out for me on Twitter after I linked this piece -- which I have to assume from their comments they hadn't actually read. "Gamers hate this, gamers hate that. Sony's going to win even though they haven't revealed Playstation 4 yet." Blah, blah, blah.
What they don't get it, consoles -- at least this console -- isn't about hardcore gamers anymore. They just aren't a big enough market for the stakes involved. The only reason Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo were able to sell as many last-generation consoles as they did, was by moving well beyond gamers, by adding lots of entertainment- and family-friendly features.
That trend will continue, and it will accelerate.
Sorry, my gaming friends, but that's the way it is.