The internet has broken the traditional hardware cycle. Whereas consoles were once fixed immovable creations, mostly unchanged until their corporate overlords deemed them obsolete, the seventh generation has used always-on broadband connectivity to tweak and change the user experience. New features no longer have to wait on the drawing board to be implemented in some expensive motherboard revision, but can be poured down the datapipes directly into the console.
This year may bring Project Natal and PlayStation Move, adding credence to the popular wisdom that instead of a new console we'll be getting new ways to play with the existing hardware, but these are machines that have already been in a state of constant evolution since launch.
The Xbox 360 hadn't even been on sale for two months before it received its first major system update, on 30th January 2006, though this was more of a housekeeping call than a step forward in functionality. You could now delete a profile without losing the saved games associated with it, for instance, a tweak that was hardly likely to register with most players. Even so, it showed just how easily minor changes could be made to the console's OS. Things that would have remained a constant irritation in years previous could now be eliminated with a quick patch.
With its rivals still almost half a year from market, June 2006 brought the 360's first noticeable update, enabling multiple background downloads, the option to boot directly to whatever game is in the disc drive and the ability to resume DVD playback. The Marketplace also got a minor lick of paint. Still relatively minor amendments, but by now gamers were starting to realise that the features of new consoles would be in a constant state of flux.
October brought another update, and it's no surprise that with the arrival of both the PlayStation 3 and Wii then imminent, changes began to be more aggressive. 1080p video output was introduced, along with support for the external HD-DVD drive. Behind-the-scenes fixes were limited in their power to sway potential purchasers, so a long game of one-upmanship between Microsoft and Sony began.
It didn't take long for the fundamental difference in approach to become clear though. In its first year on sale the 360 received seven mandatory system updates. By the time the PlayStation 3 celebrated its first birthday it had clocked up 19.
The vast majority of these were tiny fixes, making seemingly invisible improvements to functionality, stability and security. USB webcam support came in February 2007, followed by background downloading in early March. That update also brought folding@home, the distributed computing application that allowed idle consoles to crunch data related to protein folding, vital to medical research. Pointless, argued some gamers, who felt that such lofty ideals didn't impact on their gaming. As an illustration of the multitasking that the new console generation would be expected to perform, however, it was an interesting case study.
The Wii had already made a point of stepping out of the technological arms race that Microsoft and Sony had thrown themselves into, but even this relatively low-tech competitor made immediate use of the wireless world. The Internet Channel was briefly available for free after the console's launch, while the Everybody Votes channel followed soon after in February 2007. Baby steps, certainly, but a clear indication that social networking - even of the most rudimentary kind - was considered an important part of a new console's make up.
May 2007 brought another revision to the 360 dashboard, integrating Windows Live Messenger for those all-important "omg lol u n00b" exchanges. Background downloads became more sophisticated, now able to slurp down new content while the console GPU and drives slumbered, before switching off completely in the dead of night. Messaging and social networking also shared download space with media functionality in the shape of MPEG-4 video compatibility, neatly ticking boxes on the two pillars of online strategy for the brave new world of console gaming.
The MPEG-4 feature was especially interesting since support for any new video codec, much like the sale of blank tapes and double-deck tape recorders back in the day, tends to carry an implicit acknowledgment that people probably aren't using their console to watch their own home movie files. Clearly no corporation will ever waver from the "piracy is bad" message, but if the ability to play DivX files on a games console is likely to attract more customers, well, who would want to deny them that pleasure?
Sony retaliated by adding H.264 support in June, and DivX and XviD joined its approved filetypes in December 2007. This also demonstrated another of the truisms that would dominate the shifting sands of console firmware in the 21st century - that features could arrive in chunks, or be taken away again. The PS3's new open-door policy for video files was limited in that anything saved using the DivX 3.11 standard wouldn't work (we had to wait until January 2009 for that) while files that were over 2GB also gummed up the works (it was March 2009 before that changed).
Essential and visible PS3 updates were still the exception rather than the rule though. Whereas Microsoft was cunningly turning its updates into an event to look forward to, PlayStation owners could be forgiven for letting out a sigh whenever they turned on their machine to play a game, and were instead directed to spend precious playing time downloading another inconsequential firmware tweak that improved the use of various European fonts or corrected a minor imbalance in one of the audio settings.
Microsoft kept banging the friends drum with its December update, allowing members to view the friends lists of their friends, and ask themselves important questions like "Why is xXNuk3Kill4Xx friends with CODzilla, but not me?" The option to add location and a short biography to gamer profiles moved things even further into the realms of the social. Meanwhile, Arcade trial games stopped soiling your Gamercard - so nobody need know you tried Screwjumper - while original Xbox games got the opposite treatment, hanging their old-fashioned bits out on the "played games" list for all to see.
As we crested into 2008, the stuff that popped up when you started a console was starting to be as important as the discs you put into it, or at least that's how it appeared if you followed the tit-for-tat race between Sony and Microsoft to slap more stuff on their dashboards.
April 2008 saw the PlayStation Store get a much-needed overhaul, while July brought the long-awaited option to call up the XMB from in-game, an extension from 50 friends to 100 and the arrival of the much-vaunted Trophies, an Achievement-baiting addition slightly marred by the fact that the 2.40 update bearing them caused some console bricking and had to be withdrawn. September brought PlayTV into the PlayStation fold, nudging us ever closer to that Holy Grail of home electronics - the Box Under The Telly That Does Everything.
In the face of such openly competitive upgrades, Microsoft went nuclear and dropped the New Xbox Experience on 19th November, 2008. This was notable since it essentially rebranded and relaunched a console already in active use, completely changing the front end and making the most blatant strides yet towards courting the mainstream audience that the Wii had been effortlessly winning over without all the HD bells and whistles of its rivals.
Avatars were the most obvious new addition, integrated into a redesigned dashboard that initially felt like being smacked in the face by a bus shelter covered in adverts. Xbox Live Parties were also made possible, enabling up to eight friends to chat and stay in touch even while playing different games.
For all the cynicism, it's hard to argue that the NXE wasn't a great success. If you've seen an offline 360 that still hasn't had the update recently, it's easy to see how the navigation (ad-heavy though it may be) has been massively improved. And as if to make up for the indignity of mandatory cartoon alter-egos, practical options such as hard-drive installation for games, or the ability to remove zero-Achievement games from your profile, tickled the hardcore glands.
All of which put the pressure on PlayStation Home to deliver something similar for PS3 owners, a role the nascent social hub showed little interest in fulfilling. Often delayed, and launched in a disappointingly sparse state, Home's lack of integration with the XMB was either a blessing or a missed opportunity depending on how fond you were of synchronised dancing and clinical virtual shopping malls. Certainly, there was no incentive for PS3 owners to invest in Home to begin with, which has left the service struggling to make itself relevant or essential.
Rather typically, the Wii had spent this time studiously avoiding the fight altogether. System updates were generally behind-the-scenes in nature, or added promotional channels for upcoming games. It wasn't until March 2009 that Nintendo's all-conquering white slab unleashed its first major firmware improvement, allowing the SD card slot to be used to run games and channels, rather than simply being a glorified memory card.
Xbox Live Primetime continued the 360's move into the social arena in August 2009, pitting avatars against each other for actual prizes in the live gameshow 1 vs 100. User ratings were also activated, allowing everyone to vote absolutely everything as four stars, while Facebook, Twitter and last.fm joined the dashboard in their own section in October. In a move that surprised no one, Facebook came to the PS3 the following month.
As well as the arrival of established social networking brands, the updates that arrived from the end of 2009 onwards were notable not only for what they added, but crucially what they took away. The launch of the PlayStation 3 Slim in September quietly removed the Install Other OS option from the firmware, thanks to hackers using it to try and crack the PS3's tough security shell. This option was ultimately removed from all PS3s, causing a predictable rumble of discontent from around the internet as people got briefly angry about the loss of a feature they never used.
Though you probably wouldn't know it, thanks to the low-key update regime, it was actually the Wii that was at the forefront of using firmware changes to battle pirates. March 2009 saw Nintendo close down the Twilight exploit, which allowed gamers to use a Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess save file to sneak around the console's security, and by September other hacks, modifications and exploits like Bannerbomb, various bootloaders and region-setting spoofs had been shut down.
One slightly regrettable casualty was the unofficial Homebrew Channel, which let people load unsigned software from an SD card. Some silly sausages used this to run pirate games, of course, but as the name suggests many more just wanted to make and play homemade titles for fun.
Similar restrictions lurked in Microsoft's updates in the later months of 2009. The update that brought Facebook to the console also took away support for third-party memory cards, and prevented consoles from using hard-drive installation if they'd been banned from Xbox Live for modchip offences. This was ultimately reversed in April of this year, smuggled alongside the ability to use USB flash drives to extend the console's available storage space.
Does this mean we've reached a point where the update cycle has given us all it can, and will now be used mostly to police our console use? Or will the arrival of Natal and Move, not to mention stereoscopic 3D, offer up new opportunities to extend the lifespan of the original hardware, sustained by yet more firmware evolutions?
Looking back to the months before the current generation launched, it's clear to see this was always the plan. Microsoft talked about how the original dashboard blades "gives you instant access to the experiences and content you want", and excitedly suggested that players would want to "customise the look and feel of the Xbox Gamer Guide and Xbox System Guide with unique skins". Sony boasted that its free service would allow players to "enjoy online connectivity for games, friend lists, text and video chats, web browsing, and more".
Whatever happens, the console landscape has been permanently changed. Whatever form the mythical PlayStation 4 and Xbox 720 eventually take, the chances are they won't stay that way for long, as a combination of corporate competition and consumer demand continue to shape the experience long after launch.