Sunday, January 26, 2014


Where We're Going

If Microsoft wanted to develop a set-top entertainment hub, then why did they name it after a video game console?

I don't talk about the X-Box much on this blog because I don't much give a fuck about it.  That may sound like just an off-handed spitball from a Nintendo fanboy, but it's also Microsoft's problem.

The narrative so far is that Sony released the Playstation 2 in a bid for total entertainment supremacy -- it was a stealth package designed to get DVD players into the homes of the masses.  Since Microsoft had their sights set on the same goal, they decided to head Sony off by releasing their own game box.  The plan was, they would lay down inroads and build up a market identity and customer loyalty that would pay off when they were ready to transition to the living room everything-box.

And they went all-in with the idea.  Microsoft had a negative reputation with quite a lot of people for various reasons when the first X-Box debuted in the 00s.  Console gamers didn't want to see Bill Gates squeasle his way into their domain.  But Microsoft was willing to buy their way in.  Not satisfied to wait for Sony to do something stupid and pass them the baton, they convinced third party developers to get on board with lots and lots of money.  They sold at a loss.  They took the hit because they could afford to and because they figured it would pay off down the road.

And it did!  As the Playstation 3 struggled against Sony's hubris and Nintendo tried to find a new audience, the X-Box 360 just sort of quietly took over as the system of choice for people who just wanted to play a video game.  When it looked like Nintendo was going to throw a wrench in everything, they adapted with finesse.  Anything they can do, we can do better.  They went from being the barbarians at the gate to being the industry standard in just two console cycles.  Happily ever after, right?

The problem is, Microsoft didn't want the games industry; they wanted every industry.  And in hindsight, maybe trying to get there through video games wasn't the most efficient way to do it.

Yes, the X-Box has brand recognition, but it's brand recognition as a video game machine.  It's sold in toy stores.  It's in the same aisle as other video game machines.  The ads are all about the video games that you can play with it.  It's as if Xerox, known the world over for their photocopiers, decided to manufacture a photocopier with wheels and self-propulsion which could carry four passengers and all of their belongings -- in other words an automobile -- and sold it at office supply stores and all of the advertising was about how awesome it was at photocopying.

The problem is that people don't care about video games.  Sure, they'll play your Angry Birds, but they're not going to go out and buy a device built specifically for that reason.  They'll buy a handheld device that lets them take pictures and listen to music and check in on Facebook, and then if you also have Angry Birds, then sure, why not.  Gotta do something while you're waiting for your friends to reply to the video you just uploaded.

So people don't care.  People hear "X-Box" and they think "Halo", and then if they don't care about Halo they switch their minds off.  Even the name "X-Box" is kind of daunting to the average person.  It's the sort of word executives would invent to appeal to children back in the 90s, trying to associate themselves with X-treme cool rockin' gnarly shredders poppin' fresh grinds off the wiggidy wack I don't know whatever.  My point is it's a hard sell.  So we get hilarious moments like Microsoft trying to help men convince their wives to buy a perpetual adolescence machine.

But at least they've got the gamer segment of the market, right?  Well... yes and no?  Sure, you get the gamers who have the money and open-mindedness to just buy every damned thing that plugs into a TV, but then you get the people like me.  The brand loyalists.  Yes, Microsoft has a reputation in the industry now, but as long as gamers are still bickering playground-style about whose box is best, we're still talking about owning one segment of a small fraction of a much larger entertainment industry.

So I ask again.  If Microsoft wanted to develop a set-top entertainment hub, then why did they name it after a video game console?  If they weren't even going to carry over backward compatibility with old software, then why try to maintain continuity with something that has such limited appeal?

The market for set-top boxes is wide open right now, and ripe for the picking.  With streaming services like Hulu and Netflix becoming the new normal, people are ready to buy something to marry their TV to the Internet.  If Microsoft had seen this and decided to call their new console something with less baggage -- just call it the Kinect!  That's a great name!  It communicates something people want and in a friendly, almost silly kind of way! -- they could have had a huge head start over Sony and Nintendo, still fiddling around with machines that sound like toys.

There is a device in my home -- in fact there are two, for two different TVs -- which can stream Netflix, Facebook, Pandora, and YouTube straight to an HD television.  It can play Angry Birds Space, You Don't Know Jack, and Pac-Man.  It requires no discs.  It's small enough to fit in your hand.  You can buy it on Amazon for under a hundred dollars.  It's the Roku 3, and it is where we are going.

Gamers will laugh.  How is something that cheap and weak going to compete with our hobby?  We'll always want discs and huge $60 games and online first-person shooters.  We don't want the Ouya -- we want the X-Box One.

Sure.  We do.  But does everyone else?

Does Microsoft?

There were smartphones before the iPhone.  All Apple did was market theirs in a way that made them seem like a necessity.  There are microconsoles now.  What if someone with some clout -- Apple or Google -- realizes that the mass market is ripe for capture and produces something smaller, cheaper, and easier to use than an X-Box and markets it in such a way as to make it seem like a necessity?  What if it lets them stream video, check in on Facebook, listen to music, and sure, it'll play Angry Birds too, why not?

If Microsoft wanted to develop a set-top entertainment hub, then why did they name it after a video game console?


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