Unboxing the Xboy
We examine why Microsoft should (and shouldn't) enter the handheld fray. And no, Zune isn't "good enough."
The handheld market is a turbulent ride to embark upon. Well, for anyone excluding Nintendo, for whom it seems the ride is actually a skyward blast to the heavens of unyielding profits. Nearly every company that competes with Nintendo has seen their handheld swept away in the sands of time, and that's not to say they aren't remembered for their efforts, because some handhelds that have long since been forgotten were actually worthwhile devices. Yet, the stampeding 'N' has claimed highest honors in the handheld market, essentially since the birth of the very market itself. The vast majority of competitors have left thanks to the stiff competition Nintendo delivers, and those remaining, (cough ... Sony) should obviously be asking themselves why they're willing to fight this battle.
With that said, is there a possibility that Nintendo will face any new challenges in the handheld war? Sony seems to be struggling to keep up with the dust that Nintendo is leaving behind, so who will carry the torch from the long line of those willing to take a gamble on toppling the house that Mario built? The answer is on the tip of everyone's tongue, and there's no reason in holding it back any longer. It's Microsoft.
Microsoft is obviously the next in line to face the challenges that Nintendo will present in the handheld market, and the question isn't actually will they be ready, it's should they even try? The handheld market is an interesting one, and if Microsoft hopes to deliver, they're going to need to face not only their competition, but also their own ethos as a company. The Xbox 360 is a device that was built on the foundations of embracing the strongest technology available at the time, and improving the visuals, connectivity, and community offered to gamers. Would that same philosophy, which Microsoft is delivering impressively in the console market, translate to handhelds? Yes and no.
If embracing the 'bigger, faster, stronger' ideology was enough to win the market, then Sony should undoubtedly be in a much happier position than they one they currently find themselves. Visuals have proven, for handhelds, to play second fiddle to innovation, as Nintendo seems to understand. So could Microsoft innovate? The answer to that question isn't as easy as it seems. Offering a device similar to Sony's PSP would prove Microsoft is comfortable with their roots, and also that they'll most likely suffer the same failures and difficulties that Sony is currently facing. On the other hand, offering a device similar to a Nintendo DS, and embracing some form of innovation and emergent technology would instead seem like a much wiser route to embark upon. Microsoft could potentially embrace both sides of the spectrum and that would surely offer them some reason to claim their handheld a sure winner, but even that isn't so simple, thanks to a market that is undoubtedly going to be divided by region.
Microsoft is facing yet another staggering difficulty in bringing a handheld to the market, and it's probably the most significant difficulty they've faced in the console market as well. Japan. Japan's refusal to welcome the Xbox and Xbox 360 consoles into their homes is a sure sign of difficulty in the potential acceptance of a Microsoft handheld device, and that's not even mentioning the fact that the Japanese most likely won't even notice a Microsoft handheld amidst the seemingly unending assault of DS sales. Preaching what would surely be one of their handhelds greatest features, connectivity, is going to be doubly difficult when their console system has reached as few homes as it has in Japan.
However, connectivity will undoubtedly be something that sways many potential customers to their handheld in regions that have widely accepted the Xbox 360. Microsoft will no doubt deliver this connectivity through what they've revealed as Live Anywhere. The service which will bring together the Xbox 360, PC's, mobile phones, and eventually the Zune, will obviously make a huge impact for a handheld gaming machine. Microsoft will have no reason not to tout this feature upon the eventual release of their handheld gaming platform, as it should be well in use by the point they even announce any system.
The Live Anywhere service is also going to be the proponent of bringing what has, as of yet, been fairly separate from handhelds. Community. Both Nintendo and Sony have faltered somewhat in bringing community to a handheld device. The potential of Nintendo's WiFi service was dashed by their embracing of the friend codes system, and while there is no guarantee they will implement it, Microsoft is lucky enough to have a large scale community already built for their handheld. The potentials of Xbox Live for a handheld are almost difficult to imagine, but for one example, playing something like a Live Arcade title could be possible not only through an Xbox 360 console, but it could also be downloaded to a handheld, and played wirelessly, against those playing on their 360's. It lies only on Microsoft's shoulders to embrace the possibilities.
The early reports of Microsoft's efforts in the handheld market are promising in some facet, but worrying in others. Claims that they are preparing a device to battle Sony, Nintendo, and the Ipod have been reported by Dean Takahashi, reporter for the San Jose Mercury News and author of The Xbox 360 Uncloaked: The Real Story Behind Microsoft's Next-Generation Video Game Console. The idea of a device to battle nearly every major handheld electronic, gaming or otherwise, is surely an impressive one, but is it true?
The revealing of the Zune left much to be desired in the eyes of those who were hoping for Microsoft's answer to handheld gaming, and ultimately it has yet to even proven itself against its particular competitor, the iPod. If Microsoft's gaming handheld is meant to join the fray against Apple's godfather of market shares, then it would be wise to see if they can even deliver that promise when handling a device that is meant for a slightly simpler mission. That's not even mentioning, if defeating the iPod something a handheld gaming device should be meant to do? As features go, shouldn't something pertaining to games be the most significant? Yet another question brought forth by the Zune is why would Microsoft be preparing a handheld that is meant to offer the same features as their youthful line of music players? If both were available at the same time, the company would essentially be competing not only with others, but with themselves.
For Microsoft to deliver their handheld, despite all its possible features, they're also going to have to target a demographic they've mostly ignored for their consoles. While there is obviously a large number of adults enjoying handhelds, as our recent feature, The Portable Gamers Manifesto, so eloquently noted, the market itself is without question, younger in general. Nintendo has obviously been comfortable delivering handheld games to the youth, and with carefree franchises such as Pokemon and Kirby, they've succeeded in maintaining their position as leader in the handheld market share. That's not to say that Sony doesn't offer games for young players, and that Nintendo doesn't deliver worthwhile experiences to adults. It's only important to note that for Microsoft to succeed in the handheld market, they need to deliver a machine adults will embrace, and that children will still be able to enjoy.
So, is Microsoft even preparing the handheld device of which all this conjecture is based? Takahashi claims they are, and while many offer the statement: "It would be stupid for Microsoft to not make a handheld." I offer the following, it could potentially be stupid for Microsoft to offer a handheld. Entering the handheld gaming market is going to take a leap of faith from Microsoft, and in order to succeed they're going to need to embrace some ideals that they're not accustomed to as of yet. They'll have to fight for the praise of a younger demographic, and they'll have to fight for their life in Japan. The Zune wasn't Microsoft's answer to the ravenous hordes hoping for some form of portable Halo, and their gaming handheld could potentially face the weight of trying to deliver upon bearing the hefty brand "iPod Killer." There's no doubt Microsoft has laid their plans out somewhere deep within a boardroom vault filled with the sages of platform creation, and here's hoping they've noted everything they need to deliver a handheld that will be able to stand toe-to-toe with Nintendo's latest. Here's to the XBoy, and the rough road it surely faces.