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X-Boxed In?

Has Microsoft shot itself in the foot so early in the day?

: SAN JOSE, CA - March 10, 2000 - Bill Gates announced today at the annual Game Developers Conference that Microsoft Corp. is entering the video game world with the introduction of a future-generation dedicated video game console, currently code-named X-Box, designed to deliver intense, action-packed games. Building on the company's software expertise and advances in PC technology - such as 3-D graphics and Internet connectivity - Microsoft is developing a high-performance, easy-to-use platform that will enable developers to create better games, faster. Press releases, eh? A lot of hot air and technical wordplay, but in this case at least, the message is very clear; Microsoft is creating a computer gaming console entitled X-Box. That could mean anything though, the truth is very hard to fathom. As you can see, the teaser screenshots dotted around this article do little to help you, but Microsoft have already erected a small website at XBox.com to display the machine's specifications, along with these shots, so maybe those will help...

This is certainly not a gaming console in the traditional sense. The NVIDIA graphics processor running at 600MHz is the first thing to consider - the Playstation 2 only runs at approximately 295MHz, so this will be an astonishing leap. The 64Mb of RAM, too, is a big step, over the machine's opponents. The audio processor is just a few buzzwords to cover over the fact that no-one's sure who's doing the hardware. I hope that someone like Creative jumps on board there. The 8Gb hard-drive is where the XBox departs from the comfortable route taken by every dedicated computer console up until now. Now the fact that it runs on x86 architecture makes sense - it's basically a PC in a box. It's starting to sound like one of those all-in-one Compaq Presarios from 1995 that you bought once, then bought another one when it went out of date. It's a PC of set-specifications that - we presume - can be used for data storage in a similar manner to modern day PCs. The DVD drive with movie playback is a given in light of the Playstation 2 - again there's nobody onboard to provide the technology yet, but that will doubtless change. The usual four controller ports and A/V connectors are included, but the next two items require a bit of imagination. Firstly, the expansion port. Used in the case of the N64 for devices such as the 64DD - with the XBox it is possible that it may be a way of quickly and quietly upgrading the machine. Perhaps an extra 64Mb RAM module will be able to be added, or something along those lines. We don't actually know how big the expansion port will be - maybe the individual aspects of the machine (processor, memory etc) will have expansion ports of their own for future upgrades. The layman's PC, in which case! The 100MBps Ethernet connection requires a little less imagination, but nonetheless implies inter-connectivity between one XBox and another. Perhaps even many more XBoxes via an as-yet unannounced hub? The specifications of the machine at the moment are a bit of a clux. This would certainly be enough to build up an enthusiastic reception if it were released now or in only a few months' time, but in 12-18 months, when the thing actually hits store shelves, it may be a different story entirely. A 600MHz processor is the basic spec that a machine comes bundled with these days when bought from the likes of Dell. Will it suffice a year on? The 8Gb hard-drive, too - is that really going to be enough? We assume that a Windows-like interface will allow for the use of music playing software and such, so will the MP3 hardcore amongst the PC gamers accept that small a hard-drive? Will the basic end-user be happy about the need to uninstall his favourite games just to play other ones in his collection? I won't. At the moment though the specs are probably just there for show - don't read too much into them. In a few months time the official specs will doubtless be revised, and I'll revisit the topic all over again. For now though, let's consider the other factors that may be key to Microsoft's success with the X-Box. Specifically developers... On this page of Microsoft's X-Box website are a bunch of glowing appraisals of the project from a variety of sources - Bungie, EA, Namco etc - all seem keen to back up the project and get brownie points with the big M. It's interesting to note though, that the majority of the companies quoted are publishers, not developers in the purist sense. The average punter probably won't flutter an eyelid at that one, but consider - do developers really back this project? Or are their overheads simply trying to cushion future ventures with some media attention and support? Who knows... What they actually say is fairly nondescript. A lot of hoo-hah about excitement and broadening of video gaming consoles' reach, very little to jump up and down about, or basically nothing I haven't written about, but still, at the end of the day, the key facts to note are very simple:

This is what we know - it's certainly a very interesting move on Microsoft's part, and I'm sure that their PC industry know-how will aid them at every step of the way - but this is their first foray as a console developer into a hardened genre, and from what they have said so far, I can't really convince myself that this will be the success that they enthuse it will be. We know the above, everything else is as vague as the console's cryptic name would imply.