This is the third time that I have signed up for a tour of duty on the XBox platform. The first time around was a traditional stand-alone, encapsulated, offline experience for me. The 360 saw me take to the internet and join my brethren and sistren who had already, in some case, ventured online on the original XBox. This timeline converged with the rise of smartphones and some nascent, but not wholly realized, apps that would connect with your XBL persona. This time around, smartphones and tablets are firmly woven into my gaming experience, and we have SmartGlass and better apps. The Games app in Windows Phone provides even deeper integration with account access stretching from my entertainment center to my pocket. Still, there is enough potential differentiation in the experience that a dedicated handheld could offer that I staunchly disagree with XBox Division head Phil Spencer’s feeling that one does not make sense. Here’s why.
Windows Phone, Windows RT, and Windows Tablet are not enough. Spencer’s principal reason for lack of interest in doing a dedicated handheld is that these three platforms already exist and provide some of that capability. But there are some main reasons why these platforms do not cut it.
- Battery Life. I am still managing battery life on my smartphones. While battery power has improved, it still leaves enough of a gap that I can find myself in uncomfortable situations where my battery life is not where I want it to be in order to not stress that the phone is going to become unavailable. I just invested in a Power Bag for travel, and until I can stop doing things like that, then battery life is not good enough. I am comfortable enough being on travel and using my Nokia Lumia 928 to play some music, but extensive video playback or gaming is still outside my comfort zone.
- Reliability. The more complex an OS becomes, the more it is prone to bugs that impact the availability of the device. I have not had a chance to use Windows RT, but Windows 8 on small form-factor tablets has some issues, including a bug that can make the Windows Store become unavailable. I had to reset my Lenovo Miix 2 once when this occurred. When it happened the second time, I got rid of it. A dedicated handheld could hopefully be engineered to not bring along with it all of the defects that come with more complex variants of Windows 8. Granted, I’m sure it would have its own issues, but hopefully the experience could be tightened up and focused overall so that the platform could be more stable than higher-end Windows 8 OS‘.
- Controllers are ok, but hardware buttons would be better. Spencer says that Microsoft may look at bringing controller support to Windows Phone. This will mimic a console experience, and should not be an issue as controller support already exists for Android and iOS. Still, those experiences are not as tight as integrated hardware buttons and sticks. And the radio tether, whether it be Bluetooth or a microUSB dongle with RF, is still another transceiver to further drain battery power on a phone on top of the hit you will be taking from running the GPU at the high end.
Why is the time right to make an XBox Mobile, or XBox 1-and-a-half?
- Nokia has got the hardware end wired. No one wants to relive the horror of the N-Gage. I think that Nokia has moved way beyond those days. Their hardware is pretty top notch and has few equals in the current mobile landscape. I’ve been on a Lumia 920 and a 928, and I have thoroughly enjoyed both of those hardware sets. I do not have much doubt that Nokia, having now been acquired by Microsoft, can handily mold the type of hardware set that will immediately endear itself to gamers
- Windows OS unification is at a point where it could support a handheld. Microsoft continues to unify their operating systems using more and more common components and interfaces. With the arrival of Windows Phone 8.1 and additional improvements to the Windows Store, the refactoring of their OS lineup is reaching a point of software maturity where a handheld could be readily accommodated in that product line.
- There is room for competition. While I am a fan of the PlayStation platform, the PlayStation Vita simply does not have the games library that would encourage me to pick one up. Sales numbers for the Vita and Nintendo’s 3DS are well off the mark from the previous sales performance of their predecessors. Neither of those companies make smartphones, or at least I have not seen Sony’s smartphone business unit collaborate closely enough with the games division to add any competitive edge. Microsoft’s recent re-org and alignment of the OS Group working closely with the Devices Group should allow MS to sharpen their swords in pumping out a console that marries their gaming prowess up with their bag of tricks from the mobile space. Sure, MS is not king of the hill in mobile, but they are doing some things well, especially on the hardware front, and that could be brought to bear on an XBox handheld.
I have been a big fan and staunch supporter of Phil Spencer since his appointment to the head of Microsoft’s XBox Division. However, I do not agree with him and where Microsoft is on this topic. Their smartphones and tablets are still struggling to find traction as a preferred choice amongst consumers. Hitching any aspirations of a persistent XBox presence in the mobile space to Windows Phone, RT, and Windows 8 Tablet just seems like giving up. What MS is really saying is that they do not intend to compete in that space. As an XBox gamer, that is disappointing. I would really love to extend my XBox One gaming experience beyond my entertainment center, and at a higher level of fidelity than my Windows Phone provides.
I think that part of Microsoft’s concern may be that an XBox handheld would somehow cannibalize their phone and tablet sales, but I do not think that should be the case. If anything, gamers who buy the XBox Handheld might be more inclined to consider a Windows Phone device or tablet when the time comes for them to make that purchase. I am going to keep up hopes that Spencer and Microsoft will revisit this periodically and at some point during the XBox One’s life-cycle decide that it makes more sense than they currently perceive.