In 2013, the stakes are higher than ever to get the console right. No longer is there a minor battle between Sony and Microsoft to win the hearts of video gamers alone: it is now a total war for everyone who sits in the living room.
Through Halo and the original Xbox launched back in 2001, Microsoft was able to swiftly prove to gamers that their Xbox was a serious gaming platform. Xbox 360, the sequel to the original Xbox launched in 2005, upped the ante but was not quite the full revolution that its name would make it seem. Technology-wise, the system lacked much of the computational power of the later-shipping PlayStation 3, and it embraced HD-DVD, what would become an obsolete technology. Though some of those decisions could be considered grave mistakes, the power of Microsoft's marketing and their capability to secure prominent exclusive titles gave Microsoft a spend-happy customer base that kept developers building the game for Xbox 360, many of which operated perfectly over Xbox Live, their multiplayer service. As customers around the globe transitioned to high-speed broadband throughout the 2000s, the ability to connect players over the Xbox Live system turned out to be the most revolutionary improvement of all, and the reason why the most competitive gamers only played on Xbox. As of 2013, over 77 million Xbox 360s have been sold. Xbox Live has 48 million subscribers paying $60 a year to play games online. It has been a sparkling success.
Since the iPhone was announced in early 2007 and since the iPad was revealed to the world in 2010, pundits have made increasingly bold declarations that consoles were walking dinosaurs, sure to be made extinct by the rise of mobile gaming. Nothing could be further from the truth: though mobile gaming has certainly become more sophisticated and although computing power has increased dramatically in portable devices, mobile games simply do not have the immersive capabilities that could only be present in a larger, non-battery-powered device like a console. In addition, a necessarily small screen and inadequate controllers handicap the mobile gaming experience. For many years to come, there is plenty of space for a video game console in the living room.
Since its announcement on Tuesday, critics of the new Xbox have littered the Internet with complaints about everything from the size and shape of the console to the upgrades made to the famously ergonomic Xbox controller. Chief among all complaints, however, has been that Microsoft's presentation focused too strongly on how the Xbox One will change how people behave in living room, and not strongly enough on how the device will improve gaming.
These critics couldn't be more wrong, and they're missing the point, to boot.
Microsoft has nothing to prove when it comes to making gamers happy. Not only is the Xbox One a device brimming with extraordinary technical achievements (consider the SoC, rapid-speed 8 GB RAM, and an 8-Core CPU with on-chip GPU) that will play the most graphically impressive games to ever appear on a console, but the network it is connected to is much bigger and better than ever. Xbox Live is now powerful enough to allow for a transformative gaming experience. Microsoft claims that the new Xbox Live's 300,000 servers have more computing power than the entire world's computing power in 1999, put together. The "infinite power of the cloud," as they call it, brings with it the unparalleled capability for users to flawlessly play multiplayer games with friends without delay and the added capability to record and share their gaming achievements over the Internet. It is difficult to understate the experiential difference between this paid and technically superior service and Sony's less impressive PlayStation Network.
With the multiplayer gaming crown firmly in hand, Microsoft was able to focus their attention on disrupting the remainder of the living room experience. In the present, the primary activity for millions of people on the couch has been to watch what's on TV. Due to the explosive growth of smartphones and tablets, a formerly passive TV experience has been supplemented by the "second screen;" average users are, more and more, actively using social networks like Facebook or Twitter on their mobile devices while watching television. Dedicated social TV apps provide an even more immersive television experience. The one flaw with all of these apps is that, no matter how well synchronized they are with live content or no matter how much value they add to the user experience, all second screen apps necessarily remove the eye's focus away from the television screen and onto another device.
Microsoft trumped everyone in this space by releasing a new, cloud-powered version of what they call SmartGlass technology: a live-rendered "heads up display" for your television set. Additional content will be projected right on top of the screen when users command. Microsoft has realized what were once only imagined possibilities. For instance, Microsoft has already revealed one significant lifestyle improvement: fantasy sports will now be projected on top of a football game so hardcore fantasy gamers never miss a second of the action.
The new Kinect for Xbox One is the icing on the cake. What began as Microsoft's improved version of a gaming webcam has come a long way: the new Kinect is capable of fully detecting body motions in 1080p in 60fps, and thanks to IR sensors, even in complete darkness. The new Kinect has such sensitive vision that it can see the wrinkles in your clothes and even detect your heart rate. Skype video calls will look even more smooth and clear, so distant homes will be connected more closely than ever.
But as useful as Superman-like vision is, the Kinect's more impressive practical capability will be detecting user inputs for their Xbox or television. Kinect can use its superior microphones and cameras to detect who is speaking even in a noise-filled room and isolate their voice. Users can then issue the types of commands to their computers once only possible on Star Trek: at the sound of a user's voice, Xbox One will turn on, change the channel, put on any show desired, play Netflix or start a game without touching any buttons or flipping through confusing menus. In the same way that people can no longer remember their phone numbers because smartphones have rendered such knowledge redundant and inconsequential, Xbox One will make remembering television channel numbers a thing of the past.
Critics missed the point: the unveiling of the Xbox One was not a competition against PlayStation, or even an existential argument for plugged-in devices in the smartphone age. The Xbox One is not trying to compete with Tivo and cable boxes, Blu-Ray players and media computers, either.
The unveiling of the Xbox One was not an opening salvo against this motley of heterogeneous competition, but instead a champagne-popping ceremony at what is the beginning of the end. By packaging all these extraordinary capabilities so elegantly and by leading with such length in every facet, Microsoft has practically won the war for the soul of the living room already. All that remains is to see how competitors will exist in the shadow of Microsoft's new world order, and to find out what innovation they'll come up with next.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated that Xbox Live had 46 million subscribers that pay $60 a month for the service. The correct number of subscribers is 48 million and the cost is $60 per year, not per month.