The very first thought that crossed my mind when I saw the new Xbox was that this is probably what would have resulted if the rumored merger between Sony and Apple had been successful. It borrows heavily from design elements common in the most aggressive products from both companies and seems to miss many of disadvantages both firms have historically suffered.
Put it next to the Mac Mini, and from a design perspective, it is just better. It has a removable and upgradeable hard drive, and with three dual-core processors and a full memory load it is arguably much more powerful. It can be positioned horizontally or vertically.
It has built-in wireless for both networking and peripherals, and it also has IR (infrared) for remote controls. It will even remotely pull music (granted only MP3s, because Apple refused Microsoft’s request for a license) off of iPods, which makes it a better peripheral to the iPod then the Mac Mini currently is (the Mac Mini is clearly a better host).
On the Sony side, the product works better with Sony PCs than the Playstation does, performing the role of media extender for any Sony PC with the correct software load. Like it does with the iPod, it will play any MP3 or WMA file off of a Sony peripheral but not play the Sony proprietary protected tunes.
Even more than it does with Apple (who at one time contemplated entering the gaming space), this product feels like the product Sony should have built and it probably would be even more successful had it been wrapped with the Sony brand and better integrated into Sony lines. But it wasn’t. This wolf in sheep’s clothing came from Microsoft and it forecasts a massive change for the industry.
The Appliance PC
We have been chasing the concept of an Appliance PC for some time and making less-than-stellar headway. The closest things we have had historically were Macs, but the inability to run the majority of applications coupled with some rather ugly customer practices have relegated them to a tiny niche far from the mainstream.
With a potential market of 10 to 20 times that which Apple currently enjoys, the new Xbox may be addressing the opportunity Apple didn’t, and it does spell risk for the traditional PC vendors who may not be seeing, or responding, to this very clear market need.
Over time, much that we used to use a PC for has moved to the Web. Research, communications, forms, and contact management have, for the most part, moved to the Web. The need for the complexity of an all-in-one platform is dropping off in favor of something that focuses more tightly on the things we still need to do.
We saw an indication of this last year when a joint AMD/Microsoft project created an offering for the Third World called the Personal Internet Communicator. This product provided the basics for geographies which lack the resources to support a traditional PC by providing the basics for around US$200 which may constitute a month’s take-home pay in some areas of the world. It just covered the basics, and increasingly, that’s all we really want a PC to do.
This year, when Apple released the Mac Mini, Apple took a surprise sales increase as people, finally seeing an Apple appliance-like PC at an appliance-like price, began to buy in. This marked one of the few market expansions the company has enjoyed in well over a decade.
This clearly indicates the market is looking for a change and that the vendors who get ahead of this tsunami will be vastly better off then those who don’t see it coming. One wonders, just as HP licensed the iPod from Apple, if it has occurred to any of them to approach Microsoft to license this platform and make a compelling product that is uniquely theirs. Unlike Apple, Microsoft does partner well and licensing is in the company’s DNA.
The Power of the Xbox 360
With three dual-core processors and a next-generation ATI graphics subsystem and physics engine, this product promises amazing things over the next four or five years of its life. These include enhanced communications, including video, deeper music experiences, downloadable movies on demand, and some of the most realistic games we have yet seen. Like the original Xbox, the full power of this platform will probably take several years to develop as developers explore its advantages and limits.
The truly new aspect is the physics engine. This engine allows for objects to act more effectively as independent objects. An army, for instance, becomes an army of individuals rather then a mass acting together. Buildings can be destroyed and will come apart based on the forces destroying them and not be invulnerable or explode in a scripted fashion. And scenery will act as scenery would, with wind blowing the grass and trees differently, with animals interacting with each other and with your character, and with clouds looking and behaving like clouds rather then painted backdrops.
This is also the first game system designed to be modified easily by the user — something relatively common but difficult to do with a variety of consumer products, and most successful with cell phones. This seemed a natural for this market. It would be easy for a another vendor, say Coke, to create a skin that showed off their brand. Or how about a Ferrari, BMW, or Porsche skin?
By using standard USB ports, much like the original PC, the platform can now more effectively be used with other devices. Something that was initially an advantage with the iPod and then designed out of it, this feature was key to the PC’s success. This is simply the application of a strategy that has clearly worked elsewhere that many seem to forget.
In a way, this platform provides a level of creativity to both the game developer and the game system owner that we have never seen before.
This is the power of imagination, whether that is the imagination of the game developer developing the next killer title, or the game player who wants a system uniquely their own. But not just games or cases, this is the power to imagine what can be done with pictures, videos, music and TV shows, and there is more potential to this product than any I have seen for some time. With imagination as a core attribute it makes me wonder what advances the next Xbox will bring.
Imagining the Next Xbox
My best guess on the next Xbox name is Xbox VR, for virtual reality. While the Xbox 360 comes close to the reality we saw in the film “Toy Story,” the next Xbox should be able to approach “Lord of the Rings” in terms of visual quality. By 2010, a developed Physics Engine will be complete and the resolutions available to us will extend beyond the HD capabilities we are currently promoting.
Improvements in sound, similar to what Yamaha is currently showcasing with their market leading array speakers, will make the environments more real, and often more frightening. We will need to be much more careful about coming up behind someone playing certain games unannounced, as they may forget they aren’t actually living the game.
While we will still be short, probably by about 20 years, of anything that approaches the holodeck (given that “Star Trek” is ending its multi-decade run this month I thought a “Star Trek” reference appropriate), we will have crossed the threshold that will allow most of us to close the remaining gap between “virtual” and “real” with our imaginations, and that promises to be a very powerful time.
The online connection will have grown much more powerful with ever higher bandwidths allowing some traditional programming to become interactive, fulfilling the decades-old promise of virtual participatory audiences. Reality TV will undoubtedly grow to encapsulate many of our own lives. (How much do you want to bet that FOX sees this first?)
The next step in case design? How about: Design it yourself. Already PC vendors are looking at ways you can order any color machine you want and Dow’s Enclosia Solutions is providing ways to wrap your PC, phone and perhaps game system, with fabrics, metals and woods that bring a variety and richness we haven’t really seen before. What if, for a marginal extra price, you could design your own game system case?
But for now, it is only 2005. The Xbox 360 is still coming and with it comes a world of change for many companies and industries. I can’t help but wonder who will be with me in next decade when we look back and consider what massive changes one little game system inspired.
Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.