Wednesday, March 15, 2000

Xbox - The Mystery Box

(Published in Currents magazine 2000).

The Xbox as it looked in the summer of 2000, before its release in 2001.

Video gaming is serious business, not only for the $7 billion in revenues it brought in last year, but because gaming machines are becoming incredibly powerful and versatile. Sony’s new Playstation2 and Microsoft’s upcoming X-box will, in addition to playing games, be able to do most of the things a PC can do, as well playing DVD-movies and MP3-music. This is why Howard Stringer, president of Sony America, has called the PlayStation2 a “Trojan Horse in the home.”

Microsoft’s X-box will have a 600+ MHz Pentium III processor, a fairly big hard drive, and run computer graphics five times faster than the already super fast PlayStation2.
With so much power, and a fast connection to the Internet this machine is not just for playing Banjo Kazooie and Mario Party. “Clearly, it will be the world’s best web browser, and spreadsheet machine,” says Richard Doherty, a Senior Editor at the Long Island-based consulting firm Envisioneering. He ads that it may also be used to run business software rented over the net from Application Services Providers.

In the late 90’s you could hear totally wired pundits ruminate about the imminent death of the TV, but it never happened. Instead, the TV and the PC learned from each other. The PC was the quickest to learn, but it is not (and will probably never be) an ideal platform for gaming or entertainment software.

Today, the PC is the most popular way to surf the Web, but this is bound to change, as our game consoles are hooked-up to home networks, which are linked to cable or DSL modems. And the “brainless” TV will acquire some smarts from the next generation of digital set-top boxes, which are just around the corner. Then there are the hybrids, like Microsoft’s Web TV, which lets you surf and read email on your TV set.

Evidently there is some convergence, but the PC and the TV are fundamentally different: The first is a tool, while the latter is a media for consumption. In front of the PC you work, and when not, you still have to concentrate, and hold on to that mouse. In front of the TV you can sip on your soda, munch on potato chips, and most importantly, do it together with other people. When grabbing the videogame console, you have to put down the soda and grab the game controller, but at least you can lean back while letting the adrenaline loose.

Microsoft’s X-box can be seen as an acknowledgment that the PC is not a good gaming platform. It is too complicated, slow and unreliable. Who needs a Fatal Error in the middle of E.R.? The strength of the game consoles comes from the fact that they were built for playing games. But to keep up with the gowth of the Internet and the huge potential of Web-based gaming, they are forced to go online. And once they are hooked-up, the door is open for a broader interactivity, including electronic shopping, entertainment on demand, and content delivery (games, software and MP3-music) via the Internet.

As for Bill Gates, gaming is an old quest. He’s had his eye on this market for a long time, but few thought his “microserfs” could create cool consumer content, and machines to run them on. The X-box tells us that this is not only a serious, but dangerous player. When it arrives in the stores late next year, it will be much more powerful than PlayStation2. And as it will be built around a stripped-down version of the new Windows 2000 operating system, it will be easy to move Windows games over to the X-box. This is crucial, because it is hot new games that sell the hardware, not the other way around.

Hans Sandberg