Xbox 360 Shoots Behind the DuckLoyd Case
Microsoft's PC Dance
As Microsoft readies what will be the most powerful game console to date, it no doubt leaves many of its hardware partners feeling just a wee bit uncomfortable. As we now know, the Xbox 360 consists of a triple-core processor based on IBM's PowerPC architecture and an ATI graphics core, which was designed from scratch for the console environment. The company is also beefing up its Xbox Live online service and improving the overall user experience, as noted in Jason Cross's interview with Todd Holmdahl.
Aside from the silly fluff surrounding the MTV "special," which was a big ad featuring more ads and the E3 launch, the Xbox 360 appears to be a formidable piece of hardware. And the industrial design, while different from the usual black or brushed metal gear in most home theater racks, is sleek and attractive. But I can't help feeling that Microsoft missed some big opportunities. It starts with minor things, like the lack of DVI or HDMI outputs that support HDCP content protection. And since Microsoft is launching a year ahead of Sony, they won't be adopting any type of high definition DVD technology, due to the dueling standards that currently exist. Then there's Holmdahl's statement about locking down the Xbox 360 even more, to keep the modders out.
Now, Microsoft can get around all these objections. In Jason's interview, Todd Holmdahl noted that the Xbox 360 was designed so that upgraded versions could be easily created. Of course, this has the potential of creating a certain amount of ill-will among early buyers, unless some type of easy upgrade program is implemented.
Sony is clearly taking baby steps in this direction. The recently released PSP is fairly open, and a number of users have successfully hacked the PSP. For example, enterprising users have "freed" the built-in web browser, allowing the PSP to surf the web. To date, they haven't tried to block these types of mods.
Microsoft should also consider dispensing with one of the sacred cows of console development: restrictive licensing that creates barriers of entry for small, innovative studios.
I think Microsoft might have done better to have opened up the Xbox 360 to a wider audience of game developers. After the system actually ships, create a low-cost developer's system based on the actual console hardware, instead of a PowerMac G5. Then make it available cheaply, perhaps for a few hundred dollars, including SDK and developer tools. On top of that, don't be too stringent about who can buy the developer's system. Instead, make the process of getting a devkit simple, so that just about anyone can qualify.
If Microsoft may be worried about the quality or type of games that may be developed, there are several protections. First, create a special channel on Xbox Live just for this type of content. Alternatively, Microsoft could "approve" each title, but that's likely to end in a bureaucratic mess. The download system may be the best way to go.
Microsoft should also open all the hardware interfaces to the outside world— particularly to the consumer electronics industry. All you have to do is take a look at the huge hardware ecosystem being built around the iPod to know that this can only be a good idea. Allowing the industry to create customized hardware around the Xbox 360 that's not merely alternative game controllers would certainly enhance sales and create goodwill. If building upgraded versions of the hardware is as easy as Holmdahl hints it might be, then allowing the CE industry to build gear specifically for the Xbox—and gear that could go inside the Xbox—would create more sales opportunities.
Finally, Microsoft should seriously consider opening up the architecture and encouraging hackers. Sure, there are potential downsides, like cheaters somehow hacking Xbox Live. But it seems to me that technology could be built so that each game itself has anti-cheating built into it, to minimize grieving. Redmond could create a huge amount of goodwill among hobbyists and tech enthusiasts if they opened up the box a bit.
All of these ideas, however, would create another kind of heartburn for Microsoft. You see, many homes already have a hackable, moddable high performance system—the PC. If Microsoft really cut loose and opened up the Xbox, companies like Dell, HP, and others might become a tad worried. And that might prompt them to search for, or create viable alternative to Microsoft software. And since the boys in Redmond won't actually be making much money on each Xbox 360 sale, killing the cash cows—Windows and Office—may not sit well with the powers that be.
So in the end, the idea of a fully moddable Xbox 360 is probably a pipe dream. And it's also unlikely that a cheap developer's system, widely disseminated will occur. So in the end, the Xbox 360 will be another console, with some capability to integrate with Media Center PCs. And that's a damned shame.
What advice would you give Microsoft on the Xbox 360? Drop by the forums and let us know.
This Week on ExtremeTech
Dave Salvator has left the fold, but his spirit still lives on at ExtremeTech. This week, we've got Dave's final feature, which is a how-to on using a home digital recording studio. What tools do you need, and what's the process for producing your musical masterwork? Read Dave's step-by-step guide, and you'll know. Bonus: we're giving away a short track of Dave's original music.
Also up this week are new processors, some mass storage reviews and more. Plus, the big Computex trade show in Taiwan is looming, so look for coverage of the latest new hardware from Taiwan next week. Check back often!
Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in ExtremeTech.