The home console market faces plenty of threats, but iOS isn't one of them
With Apple's iOS 5 off to a flying start - already installed on around one-third of devices capable of supporting it, according to figures released this week - pundits have been lining up to predict that the new software, along with the recently launched iPhone 4S, is the herald of the demise of the home console. Apple's new approach puts the writing on the wall for Sony and Microsoft; it's an arrow in the heart for Nintendo. Anyone still developing for those obsolete home console systems might as well pack up and go home.
The culprit for this hyperbole? A feature called Airplay Mirroring, initially available only on the iPad 2 but now rolled out as a core feature of iOS 5 and seemingly confirmed as basic functionality of future iOS devices, starting with the iPhone 4S. What it does is straightforward enough - hooking up to an Apple TV device connected to your living room television, it allows you to use the television as an external display.
The uses of this for gaming are fairly obvious, although no developer has yet managed to create anything remotely like a killer app for the functionality. Essentially, though, it's not a million miles away from what Nintendo is aiming for with the Wii U - a touchscreen device serving as controller for what's happening on screen. Given that iOS devices pack a touchscreen, an accelerometer, a microphone, a camera and a speaker as default, that's a fairly flexible controller - albeit still one lacking any buttons or sticks, of course. Moreover, the graphical fidelity of devices like the iPhone 4S and the iPad 2, while not quite challenging the HD consoles, is certainly in the same ball-park right now.
High-end iDevices start out at 16GB of storage, which isn't much more than the space being taken up by a single large game on PS3 or Xbox 360 right now.
So that's it, then? Game over for consoles? Just come home, collapse into the sofa, pull out your phone and start gaming on your HDTV?
Honestly, I don't buy that for a second. Airplay Mirroring is a nice feature, certainly, but it's primarily designed to allow people to show off photographs or watch movies on their televisions - and that's where it will excel. The concept of this replacing or even challenging the established markets of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo in gaming, however, is extremely far-fetched.
There are lots of problems with the idea of users turning to Airplay Mirroring games as a key part of their gaming diet. As mentioned above, there are no buttons or sticks on the device, making it into a fairly tricky sell as a controller for games where you're not actually looking at the screen you're touching. The distinct lack of major gaming franchises on the device is another problem, as is the question of storage - high-end iDevices start out at 16GB of storage, which isn't much more than the space being taken up by a single large game on PS3 or Xbox 360 right now. Then there's the basic question of assuming that your audience owns an Apple TV, a device which Steve Jobs himself described as being "just a hobby" for the company and which has largely failed to capture consumer imagination, or market share.
Ah, you may say, but this isn't about traditional games! It's about expanding the world of iOS games onto the living room television, not about moving existing console epics onto iOS. The assumption is that if you start crafting iOS games for the living room, they'll somehow bring with them the development economics, size-conscious approach and innovative control systems which have characterised successful iOS projects so far.
Yet this is an enormous leap of faith. The reality is that when you move a gaming experience onto a 40-inch television, you change the expectations of the player. It's not all about graphical fidelity, of course, but if we're going to talk in terms of home consoles being threatened by iOS, I think that the idea that players are going to accept a sharp drop in the amount of content and graphical quality of their games is one which requires a body of evidence rather than just some unsupported claims. It's easy to forget, in all the excitement around the success of iOS titles and freemium games, that there is still a vast amount of money being made from tens of millions of sales of big, expensively made games - the likes of which iOS simply can't support right now.
Herein lies the basic problem with almost any claim that the console business is under threat from some new source. The console audience right now is made up of somewhere between 50 and 100 million players who enjoy the kind of content and experiences they get from existing games consoles. If something is going to replace consoles, it needs to offer the possibility of replicating those experiences - or at least the most important aspects of them. Right now, iOS doesn't do that - and nor do the social game platforms so beloved of investors right now.
As for Apple? Right now, Apple doesn't really have a living room strategy.
If what we're actually talking about with regard to Airplay Mirroring is the potential to move iOS-style game experiences onto the living room TV, then fine - that'll undoubtedly create a nice little niche market for a handful of developers to exploit. But threatening consoles, really? Bear in mind that what we're talking about here is an audience of people who have bought a big HDTV for their living room, bought an Apple TV streaming device to go with it, invested in an iPhone 4S or iPad 2, have a WiFi router and the technical nous required to link all of these devices together - but then for whatever reason, don't want to spend an extra £150 or so on a games console, and decide to play iOS games on their telly instead. Do these people exist? Honestly?
None of this is to say that the traditional console business isn't under pressure right now - it absolutely is. The stagnation of the market, which is stubbornly failing to grow past the scale it reached in the PS2 era, is making it harder and harder to justify rising development budgets, and will pile the pressure on even further when we move to a new generation of hardware. Emerging platforms, although mostly focused on opening up new audiences rather than cannibalising the core gamer demographic, are applying serious downward price pressures to games, and the platform holders' inflexible business models are going to make it hard for game creators to experiment with new ways to pay the bills - all the exciting work in that field is happening on PC and mobile devices.
Those pressures aren't going to go away, and need to be square addressed by platform holders, publishers and developers alike. The console business must evolve to survive - this much is clear. Airplay Mirroring and the prospect of people replacing their Xbox with an iPhone, though, are the least of its concerns.
As for Apple? Right now, Apple doesn't really have a living room strategy. Its interest in the home console market is marginal at best - the real prize would be to do to living room entertainment and cable/satellite network dominance what iPhone did to the mobile phone market, and it's almost certain that the company will make an effort to do that at some point in the coming years. Then, perhaps, home consoles will be in Apple's sights. For now, the console business should stop looking over its shoulder at what Apple's doing, and start worrying about the real problems confronting it in the short term instead.