Microsoft's latest Xbox Dash update reaffirms the console's OS as the best in the business - but it's not good enough
One of the strongest and most predictable reactions among the Internet's chattering classes is resistance to change. No matter who's responsible for the change - whether it's Google, Facebook, Apple, the BBC, Twitter - the reaction is always the same. Change is bad. The comfort of the familiar, even if it's only a familiar website and a few familiar buttons, is good. The few seconds that could be spent learning a new layout and new functionality is more cathartic when spent complaining instead.
The problem with this knee-jerk reaction is that in its loudness, its vehemence and its ultimate meaninglessness, it obscures genuine feedback and dulls the impact of genuinely considered criticism. When everyone in the world is shouting "I hate it!" for little reason other than an ingrained dislike of change, it's hard for the guy saying "no seriously chaps, this aspect of the functionality needs a rethink" to make his voice heard. As with most feedback systems on the internet, the challenge of sorting signal from noise is almost insurmountable.
In this specific instance, of course, I'm thinking of Microsoft's most recent visual and functional overhaul of the Xbox Dashboard. This major update brought with it a new interface based broadly on the conventions of the "Metro" interface which will debut in Windows 8 in about a year's time, along with support for dashboard "apps" such as video service Lovefilm and a reorganisation of the system's content marketplace.
Compared to the complex and intelligent product discovery and promotion systems used by the likes of Amazon, Xbox Marketplace is nothing short of primitive
You could, of course, guess the reaction from fifty paces away. Change is bad. Most of the accusations levelled loudly and often at the new Dash are rather unfair, as you'd expect. It's accused, for instance, of burying videogames in favour of video, music and social network content, for example. While the "games" page is a few clicks away from the home location of the Dash, this rather ignores the fact that the two most-used options, namely to play the game presently in the drive and to access your games library, are the first two buttons you can access on the interface. Contrary to the tone of the backlash, Microsoft does still know it's still selling games consoles.
More pertinent but also arguably over-egged is the criticism regarding the reorganisation of the marketplace. This criticism has been most pointed, and most warranted, by developers involved in the Xbox Live Arcade market, who feel that the reorganisation has militated against the prominence of their listings on the system and will have a negative impact on their business.
I'm not sure I agree, although it'll be impossible to tell what the reality is until the figures start to filter through over the coming months. What's happened in this update is a gradual blurring of the lines between full-price Xbox titles and Arcade titles on Marketplace. On the surface, it seems like Arcade has been buried - personally, I think it's more significant that Arcade titles are now listed shoulder to shoulder with full price titles rather than being ghettoised. Time will tell, although one aspect is almost certain, which is that the gap between successful, heavily promoted games and less successful niche titles is going to grow as a consequence of these changes.
One definite loser in the whole affair is Xbox Live Indie Games, but it's not entirely surprising that Microsoft isn't keen to put that front and centre on its console. XBLIG has never been anything more than a half-measure, a case of Microsoft nodding in the direction of the power and flexibility of the App Store business model while simultaneously winking at its partners who are bound up in the more traditional console business model.
A low price ceiling on XBLIG, combined with an unwillingness on Microsoft's part to expend the effort required to either sustain a minimum quality bar or create tools that allow the best content to effectively self-promote through the system, means that the service is a bit of a mess - its content generally low-rent and uninteresting enough to be a bit embarrassing, frankly. It's unlikely Microsoft wants new Xbox owners to find themselves browsing through the reams of dreadful Avatar games and their ilk which populate XBLIG, and should surprise nobody that the new Dash update buries the service further.
While I'm not particularly negative regarding the Dash update in general - I think it's a nice visual overhaul, if not exactly a thing of beauty, and the arrival of Lovefilm and promise of iPlayer is very welcome - I do agree with the Marketplace detractors to an extent. I think that there are serious criticisms to be levelled at what's been done in terms of Marketplace and content promotion, and questions to be asked over some of the decisions being made within Microsoft with regard to those aspects of the Dash.
Put bluntly, while I don't think that the new Marketplace is worse than the old Marketplace in any particular way, I also don't think it's much better - and that's a worrying thing, because the old Marketplace was absolutely flat-out dreadful. As the range of content available on Xbox Live has broadened and deepened, the interface has consistently struggled to keep up with it. Things have improved since the early days when you had to scroll past multiple pages of FIFA and Madden gamer icons and themes in order to see content for other games - but not much. The fundamental experience of trying to find new things you're interested in on Xbox Live remains one of scrolling through endless lists.
On Xbox Live, you've got relevant data about individual audience members up to your armpits - and Microsoft isn't using a damn bit of it
Compared with something like the App Store, it's archaic. Compared to the complex and intelligent product discovery and promotion systems used by the likes of Amazon, it's nothing short of primitive. For a Dash update that's meant to be a taste of the future, a delve into the marketplace aspects - arguably the most important part of the Dash after the button which allows you to actually play games - feels disappointingly like the past.
I've been an Xbox Live Gold subscriber for most of the past decade. Microsoft knows more about my gaming habits and preferences than any other company out there - more than Sony or Nintendo, more than Apple, even more than Google. It knows every game I've played, and how long I've played them for. It knows that I'm more likely to complete the story of a game on a normal difficulty mode once and then move on, than I am to stick around on one game for ages unlocking all the challenges. It knows I like shooters and RPGs, and never play sports games. It knows what DLC I've paid for, which games I've played online, which items I've dressed my avatars in, how many friends I've got online and what they play.
Microsoft, in other words, is in the absolutely ideal position to create the best Marketplace experience imaginable for both its consumers and its development partners. The kind of recommendations it could offer would leave Apple's "Genius" system blinking in the dust. Yet instead, when I go to Marketplace, I see the same massive, mind-numbing list of content that everyone else sees - and when I turn on my console, I see the same huge ad for FIFA, a game which I will never, ever buy, that everyone else sees.
This isn't some kind of crazy blue-sky science fiction that we're talking about here. If you deal with the advertising industry much, you know that Google and Amazon's innovations in terms of data mining consumers and targeting promotions and recommendations accordingly are rapidly becoming standard practice. In some environments this is hard; it's tough to figure out how much bang you're getting for your buck on TV, for example. On Xbox Live, you've got relevant data about individual audience members up to your armpits - and Microsoft isn't using a damn bit of it.
None of this detracts from what an essentially brilliant piece of work the evolution of the Dash has been over the past half-decade. Microsoft has understood what its rivals have completely failed to grasp - that software OS updates can turn a five year old console into a new machine, over and over again. Turn on your PS3 today and it's still the same PS3 it was when it launched, with the Cross-Media Bar looking more dated and unfit for purpose than ever. The Xbox, however, is indistinguishable from its former self. It's slick, powerful, clever, all-singing, all-dancing - a triumph resulting from the vital recognition of software and services, not hardware, as the real driver of the console market.
But it could be much better - and if it's to face down the challenges to come, then it must be much better. Gamers may dream of it, but the worst thing that could happen to Xbox is that it becomes relegated to a machine you stick discs into once again. If it's to be a vital platform that gives Microsoft the foothold it needs in the living room, it must be a content platform that's superb at selling - and it's going to face big rivals in that regard. Apple, Amazon and Google all have thinly disguised ambitions in that regard. Even Sony may clamber back onto the wagon, given the right leadership. The Xbox Dash isn't just a few shiny new pixels - it's Microsoft's most powerful weapon in the war for the living room, and even if it's the best in its class right now, it still needs to do much better.