Could Microsoft bow out of the console-manufacturing game?
An interesting story hit the internet today featuring a grab from the chief product officer of cloud-based gaming company Gaikai. He claims that “not all of the current console makers will have one more generation. That will be the big news at E3.”
It’s purely rumour at this stage, but it’s certainly got me thinking. And if you piece together some of the mounting evidence, if there’s any truth to this rumour, it’s looking increasingly like Microsoft could be the company that may bow out of manufacturing console hardware. Allow me to elaborate.
The rumours that the next Xbox will be “tablet-based”.
Now, this is something that I’ve thought about a lot since E3 last year. Ever since the missed opportunity of the Wii U tablet (that will supposedly allow you to play full fledged Wii U games on the tablet alone, but only within close proximity of the console unit), I feel that the tablet-based console is a direction that I’d like to see the next generation head into.
I’d like to see something iPad-sized that can dock with another unit in your living room (that houses an optical-disc drive and a secondary hard drive for digital-television recording) that you’d treat as a standard console, but it can also be taken with you as a portable gaming device that enables a consistent experience with your living-room console. Imagine being able to play Skyrim on your next 16-hour flight overseas and no longer being limited to Angry Birds or Cut The Rope. And not only that, imagine being able to pick up from where you left off in your living room. As the only major gaming-hardware manufacturer that doesn’t have a portable offering, it makes sense for Microsoft to capitalise on this opportunity – one that unifies console and portable gamers in one fell swoop.
Now, in the months leading into E3, rumours that something along those lines will indeed be the case are beginning to gather pace.
But how does this count as evidence that Microsoft may bow out of the gaming hardware market? Because it looks as though Microsoft is instead focusing on building a gaming software platform to run on the next wave of tablets.
Microsoft’s apparent shift in focus to building the dominant multimedia software platform
When Microsoft announced Windows Phone 7, it decided to focus on refining the software platform and leaving the hardware to the folks that do it best. Subsequently, Microsoft’s developed a mobile phone operating system that’s beginning to gain serious critical approval and consumer traction against the established players like iOS and Android. And the likes of HTC, Samsung and Nokia have already turned out impressive handsets built to the required Windows Phone 7 specs to take advantage of the platform. Also of note is that Windows Phone 7 already integrates with Xbox LIVE, with mobile games that also support achievements that can contribute to your Gamerscore.
If you’re not already aware of the impending Windows 8, it’s Microsoft’s upcoming stab at an operating system for tablets. It bears similarities to Windows Phone 7, and will utilise the same “Metro” interface that recently rolled out on Xbox 360.
If you join the dots, it looks like Microsoft is putting the pieces in place to unify its gaming, mobile and tablet platforms. In a nutshell – it looks like Microsoft’s future gaming platform will simply become a component of Windows 8, which could potentially run on a range of hardware. As cloud technology matures, it’s apparent that the hardware is increasingly becoming the least important part of the modern computing equation. And the tablet-as-console solution is a compelling one. If tablet manufacturers are happy to create devices to Windows 8 specifications, you could well be playing next-gen games on HP or HTC tablets, or even something like the Razer tablet pictured above. And there’s also nothing preventing these from plugging into your living-room television and being treated like a traditional console.
But why not Sony?
It could be Sony that ceases to manufacture consoles (if the unconfirmed rumour is to be believed, of course), but I don’t believe that this is the case. Sony has a history and more of a reputation as a hardware manufacturer than Microsoft ever has, and I don’t see any evidence that Sony is positioning itself to establish a software-based platform (aside from the PlayStation Suite for Android devices, which is chiefly a back catalogue of PSX games at this stage). Also, Sony has a vested interest in the ongoing success of the Blu-ray platform that we must consider. And the upcoming global release of the Vita is(in my opinion) too significant an investment in gaming hardware to suggest the company has any plans to drop it altogether anytime soon.
Sony has categorically ruled out the reveal of a next-gen PS3 at this year’s E3, but I do believe this is more in keeping with the “10-year life cycle” plan that the company has trotted out for some time now. Sony simply doesn’t feel the need to release a new console at this time.
If Sony was to bow out of the gaming-hardware business, my guess is that the reasoning would be mostly financial; the fallout from last year’s compromised PSN situation and the fate of the PS Vita (which is seriously struggling in Japan at the moment before its Western release next month).
Yeah, but maybe not…
Now, I feel that I need to stress that this is all just pure speculation on my part based largely on unconfirmed rumours floating around, some industry developments and also my own desires in terms of where I’d like to see console gaming head. But I can’t deny the evidence that suggests things are going to get very interesting in the coming months.