Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Thoughts on Microsoft's new Xbox One

Yesterday, Microsoft unveiled its new Xbox One game console to an assembly of press, analysts and Microsoft employees on its Redmond, WA campus. The Xbox One has faster processors and more memory than the Xbox 360. A new version of its Kinect 3D digitizer with a 1080p camera is included as standard equipment. The Xbox Controller has also been redesigned, although the changes are mainly cosmetic. In addition, the Xbox One has an HDMI input, so that selected cable, satellite and IPTV set-top boxes can be connected to and controlled by the Xbox One.

Microsoft spent the first half of the presentation focusing on the Xbox One's TV-related features. For example, the Xbox One will have a built-in Electronic Program Guide (EPG) that supports many video operators. Users will be able to change channels and look for shows to watch by voice. In addition, the Xbox One will enable navigation via Kinect gestures.

The second half of the presentation was devoted to games. Only a handful of game publishers were represented on stage, and none of them showed actual game play; instead, they showed trailers. To my eyes, the most impressive trailer was for Forza Motorsport 5, which is the only game title that's been confirmed to be released day-and-date with the Xbox One. It looked great, with visual elements such as metallic paint and realistic depth-of-field rendering that would have been possible only in pre-rendered cutscenes not long ago. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case with the demos from the other game publishers. Electronic Arts, for example, appears to be using the Xbox One's additional horsepower to add more intelligence to the game play in its sports titles rather than for improving how its games look.

Microsoft is apparently concerned about the future of the Xbox given the falloff in sales of console games and the rise of casual games on smartphones and tablets. As a result, it's trying to position the Xbox One as both a set-top box (one that can both connect directly to content over the Internet and indirectly through cable, satellite and IPTV set-top boxes) and a high-performance game console. The problem is that those are two very different markets, with different use cases and consumer expectations. For example, Google TV provides most of the same non-game functionality as the Xbox One, albeit without voice recognition or gesture control. On the other hand, you can buy a Google TV-based set-top box from Vizio for $99, while I expect the Xbox One to be priced around $399. You can also buy an Apple TV or Roku set-top box for $99 or less. I simply don't see very many people buying the Xbox One for its set-top box features, since they can get most of its functionality from less expensive competitors. That means that most of the Xbox One's buyers will be hard-core or moderate gamers, which won't expand the potential market for the device at all.

I suspect that Microsoft's corporate leadership has fallen victim to Shimmer Syndrome (named after the combination floor wax and dessert topping in the famous Saturday Night Live commercial parody.) As with Windows 8, which works both on tablets and on conventional PCs but is compromised on both platforms, it's trying to make the Xbox One work both as a set-top box and game console. The compromise on the set-top box side is clearly price; we don't yet know what the compromise is on the game side, but it may be lack of attention that opens the door for Sony to offer a superior developer and gaming experience.

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