Thursday, November 28, 2013

Console Post of the Week: The Xbox One Gamble

First off, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in the U.S., and happy belated Thanksgiving to our Canadian readers (sorry--I miss it every year).

Microsoft is trying to do something in this generation that I'm not sure anyone has done successfully: create a mass market convergence device.

To discuss this, let's look at the other end of the spectrum first.

Two of my favorite consumer devices ever are the progressive DVD player and the Nintendo Wii. The progressive DVD player was pure genius, because it was a device that was entirely transparent to the consumer. If you had a TV with a component connection, then this DVD player would remove the interlacing on your existing DVD's, which greatly improved the picture. No new discs, no special settings, no instructions needed. Just put in a DVD and it worked.

They were highly successful, and why not? It required no education on the part of the consumer, but provided a tangible benefit. That's the sweet spot for a consumer device.

Now, let's move on to the Wii. It was a tremendous paradigm shift, for a console, but it was essentially self-evident. Play Wii Sports (included) for five minutes and you understood how the motion control worked. It was different, but it had a higher fidelity to real play than existing consoles, so it was actually far more intuitive to someone who'd never used a console.

Genius. And highly successful.

Now let's look at Xbox One, and before we do, let me just say that I do believe someone will, at some point, create a successful convergence device. However, in general, convergence devices have inherent obstacles to overcome.
1. Convergence devices are complicated, and consumers don't like complications.
The Xbox One can do all kinds of things--voice control, gesture control, controlling your cable box, video pass-through, and about fifty other things I'm not even listing. It's not a spaceship, but to mass market consumers (the people who went out and bought a Wii, even though they'd never owned a console before), it might as well be.

So if you buy a convergence device, but you don't want the convergence, why would you buy it, exactly? It's a given that you can buy "single functionality" cheaper.

However, this is where it could get very interesting. If Microsoft can lower the price of the Xbox One to reach parity with the PS4, then why not buy the One? Yes, the PS4 is more powerful in terms of games (that's beyond argument at this point), but the One still packs quite a bit of horsepower, and all that extra functionality is icing on the cake.

If you want to argue that the One is really already as cheap as the PS4, because the PS4 doesn't come with a camera, just don't. We're not talking about functional equivalency, we're talking about bottom-line price when someone walks into a store.

2. Convergence devices always have a weakness.
If you have a device with wide-ranging functionality, it's almost guaranteed that there will be an Achilles heel. Something isn't going to work, or it's going to work poorly. In the Xbox One, I think the Achilles heel is Kinect, even though Kinect is also, by far, the most interesting technology and functionality the console has to offer.

The amount of functionality offered via voice command is truly impressive, but that functionality is highly sensitive to the aural environment. Background noise? Recognition accuracy is going to go down, sometimes substantially. And I'm not talking about a wild party in the background--any noise at all can potentially be problematic.

So the voice recognition is the game changer, potentially, but it's also potentially the most frustrating functionality the console offers because of its accuracy rate.

If you're charging people more because your device has kitchen sink functionality, it needs to do everything well, and that's extraordinarily difficult. It's much easier to do one thing tremendously well than ten.

3. Convergence devices have historically sold poorly.
I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that almost all mass market convergence devices have been financial busts, and often on an epic scale. If you looked at that commercial landscape, it would take a large amount of hubris to defy history and make another one.

Microsoft did, though. I can understand why, too--there's so much additional revenue to be had from selling services/products as extensions of the added functionality. And you can argue that it's this revenue that makes a convergence device today different from the failures of the past. If you use this line of thinking, the box just represents a revenue stream, and why wouldn't you pack as many potential revenue streams into the box as possible?

Do I buy that argument? No. I do, however, see it's appeal. It's devastating on a white board.

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