Xbox One: "Why?"

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I have a strong memory of being a young child and being forced to go along with my mom and dad to an investment pitch. They couldn’t find a babysitter, I owned a Gameboy with Adventure Island II, there was no reason not to take me. I couldn’t give you specific details regarding what that pitch was about, but I remember being fascinated by the potential of the WebTV box they showed off. On the ride home, my parents decided not to invest because they still didn’t understand the “why” part of the product, but the things that presenter promised the product could do blew my young mind. You don’t care about “why” as a kid when presented with magic. This memory came at me like an oncoming train while watching this week’s Xbox One reveal and, with nearly twenty years of hindsight since then, I find myself far less impressed by the potential of its modern incarnation.

“You can use twitter!” one presenter proudly told me through my computer screen. “I can use twitter,” I tweeted from my taskbar Twitter program. Responses to my tweet then lit up my phone as if it, too, was establishing its presence in the ever more important “Can it handle twitter?” substantiation. My 360 beside me stayed quiet, perhaps ashamed at its inability to notify me immediately of tweets regardless of what I was doing. "The future is now,” Microsoft insisted while showing me the wonders of Skype.

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Microsoft was desperate to convince me that my TV should be the silver bullet, it should be my portal to all lands magical and all information categorical. They wanted me to know it could work in concert with my phone and my iPad and my computer to bring me all the content I could individually get on those things I already own. The living room will become The Living Room brought to you with promotional consideration by Microsoft, a vision of the future that was played up for comedy rather than awe in Back to the Future 2.

And throughout all of this, I did not hear the magic words, the shibboleth indicating a unified vision: why?

That was a question that saw no answers throughout the reveal or for the rest of the day. After a sudden realization that I had become my parents and a few hours in the mirror checking my hairline for the obligatory recession that comes with such an epiphany, I decided to move past the dissatisfaction I felt at the lack of an answer. Behind the strange tone of the presentation that felt more like a desperate salesman than a market leader, the question of “Why” became less important than a discussion of its presence. It was not as important why I need this, but why Microsoft thinks it is important that I have it, anyway.

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It was a surreal experience to be watching the Xbox conference and be repeatedly told that the TV will become more important in my life while I was actively moving away from it as my hub. I’ve lived cable-free for almost two years now and I’m not one of those people who would say there’s nothing I want to watch, but the immediacy and urgency of watching it as it airs has had a decidedly smaller impact on my life now than it ever has before. When I think about the times having cable and seeing something live have actually affected me, I think about how I watched then-candidate Obama’s acceptance speech in 2008 on a dinky dormitory common room TV in another country at four in the morning. Somehow, none of us thought at the time that it was too hard to watch or wished that we could switch the TV to Gears during the dull moments of the speech.

That may be a tad unfair as I would hate to condemn the march of progress purely on the basis that things worked out okay before, but it does speak to the sort of incrementalist mentality laid bare before us during the reveal. Microsoft took ideas that we all agreed were good in 2006, implemented them in a new system in ways that we have already come to expect, and acted like we were witnessing the revolution of passive entertainment before our eyes. They stood there saying they were pushing the very idea of the television further while offering boardroom-approved versions of idle daydreams. They made a camel and told us it was the newest breed of horse.

The most difficult part to admit is that it sort of makes sense. Even casual observers of media can tell you that both high-budget video games and television shows, while still enjoying incredible success, appear to be lost in the woods regarding the future. Content producers still have no idea how to deal with people wanting to pay money to stream entire seasons of TV shows to their iPads, so they cling to old world mentalities like requiring cable subscriptions to do so. The once event-like video game is now common with budgets running out of control in efforts to capture the audience’s attention, creating a sword of Damocles that hangs over the developing studio if the metacritic score goes a point too low. These are industries standing on the back of their heels and Microsoft is presuming a future where the two are married, hoping that will solve all problems.

That is why they didn’t tell you why, because the answer isn’t pretty. They cannot go up on stage, hat in hand, and explain to you that gamers don’t bring in enough money. They can’t offer up the cynical notion that games cost too much and that Comcast is deathly afraid that the old model will die so they need to push through consumers and tell them what they want. The Xbox One reveal was not about a unified vision because the point is to serve many masters. Whether that succeeds or not is a question for soothsayers and analysts, but convergence is not a key that unlocks the door to success, it is merely one theoretical way to get it open.

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For better or worse, the Xbox One announcement represents a massive change in how consoles will work in the future. This was not a product presented with confidence as the next big step for the future of entertainment, but rather a horror movie-like grouping of remaining survivors clinging together for a better chance at making it out of the darkness. I am not a young man any longer and will readily admit I do not understand how today’s youth thinks, so maybe they will decide to eschew convergence on personal devices for Microsoft’s vision of convergence on a communal one, but it’s an awfully big risk to take.