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AT LARGE: Toying with hardware

AT LARGE: Toying with hardware

The anticipation is really getting to me. All over town there are posters with a glowing green X on them promising me "soon". One even apologises for keeping me waiting. You've got to love a company that apologises right there in the ads. Clearly this is a caring, sharing sort of company.

Surely this isn't the same company that has just been told "yes, we understand that you're evil, but hey, that's what America is all about" by the US Government. Surely this isn't the company that has used any and all means necessary to build, maintain and extend its stranglehold on the personal computer software industry? No, surely that company does not have it in its heart to apologise.

Microsoft's Xbox marketing has been, in a word, different. I recall when Sony's PlayStation 2 was imminent. Ads for it featured shockingly brief glimpses of unimaginable violence soon to be unleashed on a well and truly suspecting world. By the time the PS2 was a few months from release, most people who cared one way or the other about it knew pretty much all there was to know.

Not with Xbox. With this device, Microsoft appears to be following the traditional political tactic of "presenting a small target". Perhaps people more closely involved in the gaming sector have been deluged with promotional bumf for the thing, but I, as a potentially interested possibly potential customer, have heard nary a pip.

Not like Microsoft to be like this. Microsoft traditionally says a hell of a lot about its upcoming products, even when they are years, not months, from release. It stops people buying competitors' products at least long enough to check out the Microsoft offering before they make up their minds. If the Microsoft product never ships, the delay in purchasing can be quite lengthy.

Xbox has Sony running scared -- the PS2 is no longer the new kid on the block, and even its best tricks may not be enough to keep the limelight when the newer kid arrives. Nintendo is running scared, even though its GameCube will be on the shelves before Xbox. (Can these people not come up with better names? Or at least a different shape?) Nintendo's marketing prowess, so very successful at convincing millions of kids that Pokemon was something other than useless mind-melting rubbish, withered under the power of Sony, so it wisely fears competing with Microsoft.

But there should be more people scared about Xbox than just game console manufacturers. Microsoft got into heavy (albeit temporary) trouble for bundling Web browsing functionality into its operating system, but can expect no such worries about making the Xbox a top-flight Web platform -- Web browsing is already an accepted function of high-end gaming systems. And, of course, since the terms of its settlement with the US Government handily identify Web browsing as an "operating system service", the door is open for other "operating system services" to be integrated into Xbox as well. Like multimedia, for one. Digital video editing. Music. Web serving. Databases. Word processing.

I don't know whether or not anybody else has noticed it, but Microsoft has entered the hardware business. Up until now, OEMs have been pretty uninterested in Microsoft's OS monopoly, because they could all join in the party with a large chunk of the cost of research and innovation handled by others. Sure, they sympathised with Sun, Lotus, Netscape, Novell, WordPerfect and the rest of MS's vanquished software foes, but that was the software business and as long as they had an OS to sell their customers, they didn't care too much about anything other than hardware -- software is only there to move boxes. They didn't like the restrictive licensing practices, but they managed to get that changed anyway.

How will IBM, HP, Dell and the rest feel when the mighty hammer of Microsoft competition is turned against them? How will they feel when Microsoft designs an entirely new computing platform around technologies that it owns and controls (and about which very very little is known)? Introducing this new computing platform as a gaming system is an ingenious tactic, like a poisoned apple. It seems so innocuous, or even strangely endearing. A company so dedicated to serious business suddenly starts playing games? How cute.

The reality is Microsoft has been frustrated time and again by the fact that it does not control the hardware platform. It has had to work with often uncooperative partners like IBM and Intel, and its dissatisfaction has been palpable. Now, in the words of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, "it makes the whole widget". The computer business is about to be blown wide open.

Can't hardly wait.

Matthew JC. Powell is getting quite good at Tekken Tag on his PS2. Send tips to mjcp@optushome.com.au


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