Sony's had the first of its big reveals - we still haven't seen a box, much to the consternation of people who clearly spend a lot more time staring at the space under their TV than I do, or a price tag, much to the consternation of everyone else - so now all attention has turned to Microsoft. After the longest hardware generation in console history, it's coming up to time for the next gauntlet to hit the floor. Having made enormous strides and gains during the past seven or eight years (although it may be pipped at the very end by Sony's installed base), Microsoft's next Xbox enters the fray with a weight of expectation on its shoulders.
Yet the next Xbox also faces a problem its predecessor didn't have to deal with - namely the fact that Sony actually has its act together this time, or so it seems. Microsoft got a lot of things right with the Xbox 360 - great controller, great online service from the outset, good developer tools - but what gave it its real head-start, papering over major cracks like the shocking hardware failure rate of the early years, was not of the company's own doing. Rather, the Xbox 360 confidently strode past every stumbling block because its major rival, the PS3, was tripping over its own feet and pratfalling off the track entirely. Arriving a year later to market, the PS3 was dogged by a ludicrous price point, daft, developer-unfriendly hardware, an anaemic approach to online services and a sense of corporate arrogance and entitlement that was soon to come painfully back down to earth.
This time, Microsoft will not enjoy the advantage of its rival shooting itself in the foot every few paces. Sony's overall corporate position may not be the healthiest it's ever been, but the company's approach with PS4 thus far has been intelligent, purposeful and has even, in a sense, felt quietly apologetic regarding the excesses of PS3's early years. There's a long way to go yet and plenty of rough ground to cover, and it's still entirely possible that Sony will trip over some obstacles (price point, price point...) but early signs are promising.
"This time, Microsoft will not enjoy the advantage of its rival shooting itself in the foot every few paces"
This begs an important question for Microsoft to answer - how will it differentiate itself? We've already seen a handful of leaked and highly credible specifications for the Microsoft box, so we know that it's not going to be more powerful than Sony's system (in fact, existing specs are less powerful, but it's unwise to rule out an eleventh-hour specification bump along the lines of Sony's surprise inclusion of ultra high-speed memory modules). Sony has effectively caught up in online services, and services like PlayStation Plus and the video integration offered by Gaikai technology give it a number of new strings to its bow. As for backwards compatibility, both PS4 and Microsoft's next Xbox are going to be based on hardware platforms so different from their previous efforts as to render backwards compatibility deeply unlikely at best.
In short, despite its success in the present generation, Microsoft is going to have to do a whole lot better than simply "the next Xbox - more of the same but better" if it wants to repeat or better its market share performance. With Xbox Live, it showed a fantastic ability to leverage its experience and knowledge of the PC and online markets in order to effectively "skate to where the puck will be, not where it is" (as NHL legend Wayne Gretzky memorably described it) - launching an online service and pushing it hard just in time to catch the rising waves of online gaming and social networking as they reached critical mass. Microsoft needs to repeat that feat in some form; at the very least, it needs to offer a vision of console gaming that's different enough from Sony's to make it distinct, memorable and appealing.
There are reasons to be concerned about that. One of them is the company's seemingly unwavering focus on Kinect, which seems set to be built in to the next generation of Xbox consoles. That's fine in itself - a motion sensing component is a handy feature to have for developers - but it had better not be pushed as the console's Big Thing. Kinect, like PlayStation Move, is great tech - but it only ever existed commercially as a response to the success of the Wii. With Nintendo's home consoles foundering at present, focusing on motion tech feels very much, to borrow Gretzky again, like skating to where the puck used to be, not where it will be in future.
"With Nintendo's home consoles foundering at present, focusing on motion tech feels very much like skating to where the puck used to be"
Then there's the heavily rumoured always-online aspect of the console. I remain in the "I'll believe it when I see it" camp on this - I simply can't believe that Microsoft is prepared to look at the significant percentage of Xbox 360 owners who never connected their devices to a network and say "you know, we never liked the money those guys gave us anyway". Equally, I find it hard to believe that they're ignorant of the many usage scenarios for consoles which don't involve being in the living room of a suburban home with a comfortably large broadband pipe stuck into the back of them. I know I've banged that drum before recently - back then I was in the rural West of Ireland, without a single bar of wireless data let alone a wired broadband connection to my name, and now I'm in Tokyo, one of the world's most connected cities, and I have a gigabit broadband connection.... Which goes down, inexplicably yet regular as clockwork, for five or six seconds every 20-odd minutes. Stuff doesn't always work the way it's meant to, broadband least of all. Always-on remains a pipe dream - as in, a dream of a time when the pipes aren't broken and twisted.
Still, it could happen - Microsoft could decide to pull that switch. They could even justify it by claiming that they're skating to where the puck will be - that always-on is the future we're moving towards, and Xbox is just getting there first.
They'd be wrong, and here's why. If you think about making a consumer-focused business into an early mover, so that you're already established by the time consumers realise that they want what you're offering, then the key word in there is "consumer". You're looking for what consumer behaviour will be down the line - two, five, even ten years away - and trying to make a product that fits that demand, or better again, creates it. Again, the key word is "consumers". They're your customer - you're creating something that improves things for them, so they grow to want and eventually to expect it from the products on the market.
"Always-on remains a pipe dream - as in, a dream of a time when the pipes aren't broken and twisted"
Always-on functionality in a console does not meet that expectation. Who wants to keep a system always-on? Who benefits from it? Microsoft, mostly; after that, some publishers and developers who want to use it to stop piracy and clamp down on second-hand sales. The advantage to consumers? Very little, weighed against the major potential disadvantages. This may be the wave of the future, but it's not a wave any consumer wants to surf, no matter how often we're told by publishers and platform holders that the water is lovely.
Moreover, the idea of an always-on console - if it's true, and I maintain that that's a big "if" - would underline a basic problem with Microsoft's entire strategy. Because platform holders deal with publishers (and to a lesser extent developers) every day, it can be easy for them to forget that these people are not their customers. Their customers - and thus their actual priority - are paying consumers who buy consoles and games, and business decisions must be focused on making those people happy, not on ensuring a snuggly love-in with publishers and developers. Balances must be struck, of course, and consumer and developer interests often even align nicely - but if you're building consoles for a living, your job is to make the consumer happy, even to the extent of making third-party developers and publishers very unhappy at times.
Of course, your publisher pals will mutter darkly about going over to exclusively support The Other Side, but this is nonsense. The reality is that in many ways, publishers aren't terribly powerful players in the market, no matter how much they like to believe otherwise. If Company X releases a console with always-on functions and no second-hand sales, and Company Y releases one with no always-on DRM and full support for second-hand software, it's obvious which one publishers will prefer - but if the Company X console ends up with an installed base significantly larger than the Company Y console, publishers will fall over themselves to develop games to sell to that audience anyway. Look at the constant churning of developer and publisher dissatisfaction with Apple's iOS App Store policies; every month brings a new threat of widespread rebellion (often against a clause which, considered from a consumer perspective, is a perfectly reasonable thing), none of which matter a tuppenny damn because Apple has the lion's share of the mobile app market and nobody but a fool or a peculiar moral purist is going to give up releasing content on that platform.
"if you're building consoles for a living, your job is to make the consumer happy, even to the extent of making third-party developers and publishers very unhappy at times"
As Microsoft's big day draws near, then, this is what I'm looking for. I want to see something that differentiates the company's offering - something that isn't Kinect, something new and interesting (be it controls, software, functionality or even business model related) that gives a clear vision for the next half-decade of home console gaming. Moreover, I want to see that Microsoft hasn't forgotten who their customers actually are. The next Xbox, like every console, needs to speak not to an audience of publishers but to an audience of gamers and consumers; make a great console and sell it to tens of millions, and the publishers will dance to your tune anyway.
If always-on is to be part of the experience, then it's going to need an extraordinary, mind-blowing justification; a piece of console functionality that simply cannot be lived without and could not be done without permanent connectivity. If it's simply a half-heartedly justified cover for a DRM scheme, then it will speak volumes about a rot at the heart of Microsoft's most basic decision- making.