Xbox One: Pushing a Rope

What is it with Microsoft these days? They totally own something like a billion Windows PCs, but never seem to have time to listen to that audience. They’ve sold — what? seventy-six million Xbox 360s? But they can’t seem to build a new console that’s backward compatible with that ginormous installed base. Instead, they’ve smacked Windows users in the face with a tablet OS, and now they’re clubbing Xbox gamers with some sort of media streaming gizmo.

I’ve interviewed most of the major manufacturers of media boxes. (All except Apple, who never answer my calls. I take that as a compliment.) They all admit that regular consumers are just not interested in these devices. Apple TV does best, partly because it’s got that magic Apple name, and partly because it’s kind of cheap. But none of these things are selling all that well, probably because most consumers are already as baffled by TV technology as they ever want to be.

So what’s Microsoft bringing to the party with the Xbox One? Pass-through ‘live’ TV? You mean, like what the Sony Media Player with Google TV did? (You remember, that box nobody bought.) This is exciting? As one commenter put it: “Oh, boy: now I can watch TV on my… TV.”

Kinect? Do consumers actually want to talk to their TV? To wave semaphore hand signals at it? Maybe someday. But right now, it’s just not part of our expectations. And that’s even assuming the new Kinect actually works as well as Microsoft says it does. I’m skeptical about Microsoft’s glowing claims for it, given that they are a tacit admission that the original Kinect did not work very well. If the upgraded voice recognition is still wrong just once in, say, twenty times, it’s going to be infuriating. Ditto for waving and jumping up and down at the camera.

Oh, and then there are the privacy concerns. A camera that Microsoft says is off, but which has no on/off switch, and for all you know may already have been enabled by remote control. (Say, in response to a government order. Which, of course, Will Never Happen.) And a microphone that Microsoft admits is always on, because it has to listen for you to bark “Xbox: on!” at it. (A bit like the Human Torch, redundantly bellowing “Flame On!”) And a processor and power supply that never sleep, because they have to interpret every word that’s said in earshot, just in case it might have been “Xbox: on!”

But all this stuff is secondary to the main problem: this thing is just not that impressive as a games machine. The specs are (charitably) just barely ahead of the PCs you can put together right now (early June). By Christmas, PCs will probably be pulling ahead. PCs will also remain more flexible, more open, more configurable. The Xbox One, despite having a PC architecture, will be running its own mutant OS, which will keep the system tightly closed, non-expandable, and incompatible even with its predecessors in the Xbox family. True, a decent gaming PC will (probably) remain more expensive. But it will be a far better overall value. (You can even use it to do actual work…)

Microsoft seems to have developed a penchant for snatching defeat from the jaws of certain victory.

With Windows 8, all it needed to do was fix a few bugs, spruce up Explorer a bit. (Maybe allow me to edit filenames like in a spreadsheet, for instance. Or make Ctrl-Del delete word, not delete to end of line.) Instead, they forced users into a difficult choice: accept a tiny handful of welcome improvements (better Copy dialog) in exchange for abandoning big chunks of what they know about the basic Windows interface.

With the Xbox One, all Microsoft had to do was boost the graphics capability to the absolute max that hardware makers could deliver (preferably just enough to beat Sony’s PS4). And deliver a bunch of great (exclusive) games. In short, put games first, given that gamers are — and will remain — the primary audience for the device. Instead, Microsoft went on a Hannibal-esque expedition to conquer the living room… the Afghanistan of home electronics, an epic quagmire that has swallowed entire technology empires before now.

Everything with Microsoft these days is ‘strategic.’ It’s all about sacrificing easy, massive, short-term profits, in the hopes of gaining some far-off bonanza of consumer lock-in. This is known as ‘doing it the hard way.’ And forcing consumers to accept what you think will serve your strategy, instead of what they already know they want, is called ‘pushing a rope.’

What’s wrong with ‘doing it the easy way’?

That’s how Microsoft got to be Microsoft. They were the always the company that was firstest with the mostest. The most bang for the buck. The most hardware power, delivered to the user. Today. While Apple worked on the upholstery, Microsoft was tuning the engine.  In the 1980s and 1990s, Apple had a vision; Microsoft had products. Nowadays, Apple has some great products, while Microsoft spends all its time chasing visionary concepts.

Apple has achieved a degree of consumer lock-in that Microsoft may well envy. But Apple did it the easy way: by luring customers with stuff they actually wanted. Microsoft could do that. They used to be great at it. And they could be again.

It’s easy.

About fung0

Long-time tech journalist. Contributor to numerous periodicals, online sites and TV productions in the US and Canada. Author of several books on computing topics. Graduate mechanical engineer (Queen's U).

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