Wednesday, 12 June 2013

A Bag of XBones: How Can So Many Bright People Make So Many Dumb Mistakes?

Asked to describe a ‘geek’, you might say we tend to be bespectacled, thin necked, and have a terrible taste in sweaters. If you wanted to abbreviate that even further, you might simply point at Bill Gates.

It’s definitely a fair description of the founder of Microsoft. One of the few memorable quotes attributed to Gates is the one where he confesses that ‘I am a geek’, though that shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. It’s why those of us who are proudly geek have always identified more with Gates than we ever did with Steve Jobs. Jobs was a man loved by marketing graduates. Those of us whose interest lay in computer code: we admired Gates who had a profound understanding of technology. He is our Henry Ford and though he will sometimes be vilified, his reputation will endure as one of the century’s geniuses, the ultimate geek who made it big.

All of which makes it so strange that his company, Microsoft, seem to have had it in for us geeks recently.

Steve BallmerThings seemed to start going wrong when a jock took over. Gates met Steve Ballmer at Harvard where the latter was studying mathematics and economics. Ballmer doesn’t look like a geek. He managed the Harvard football team and resembles Peter Boyle playing young Frankenstein’s monster in the Mel Brooks’s classic. Ballmer is loud, domineering, gets very excited, and sweats so profusely that it would come as no surprise if we learned that he wears a jockstrap to product launches. Ballmer doesn’t look like a man who would ever really understand geek passions. He doesn’t even look like he’s ever played a computer game in his life. His business is the hard sell and nobody sells harder than Ballmer.

Given the difference between the old and current CEOs of Microsoft, perhaps industry analysts shouldn’t have been so surprised when the company announced their new Xbox One a few weeks ago and almost completely sidestepped the issues that make us geeks so very excited. The launch made big promises about how the Xbox One would be a new way of watching TV, of adding content to (surprise surprise) NFL and basketball. Many of us watching the presentation were left feeling suitably confused. Since when do we, the Xbox’s core audience, care about new ways to schedule our TV viewing? It is many years since gaming replaced TV as our leisure activity of choice and most of us probably consume what little TV we do watch via other methods such as the BBC iPlayer or Netflix.

Given such a dismal initial launch, Microsoft had plenty to prove to gamers at yesterday’s E3 presentation and things certainly began reasonably well. Before a single casual jacket/crazy t-shirt combination could bring their hyperbole to the stage, we were given a preview of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the first game in the franchise based around an open world environment. We whooped loudly as we saw an example of real time weather as a dust storm rolled in followed by a slew of great next-generation graphics and gameplay. The only key fact missing from this exciting glimpse of the future was mention that the game isn’t actually an Xbox exclusive. Many in the audience were undoubtedly already thinking how much they’ll enjoy playing an even better looking Phantom Pain on Sony’s rival PS4.

Because make no mistake: that was very much the elephant in the E3 room. The question we all asked before the conference began was: could Microsoft change the consensus that had formed around the opinion that the Xbox One is already dead in the water?

As soon as their machine had been announced and previously leaked specifications confirmed, it became apparent that Microsoft had made a big mistake. The process of designing a new console takes years but Microsoft had designed their machine based on the reality of three or four years ago when the price of memory was too prohibitive to throw 8GB of fast GDDR5 chips into a home console. Sony had gambled that by the time their console came to launch, the faster memory would be affordable so they built a machine whose architecture could exploit that extra performance. Although the two machines are almost indistinguishable from each other (effectively being miniaturised PCs), Microsoft Xbox One runs on considerably slower DDR3 memory. When ID Software founder and hero to true geeks everywhere, John Carmack, recently tweeted that ‘Sony made wise engineering choices’, his pronouncement also sounded like that of the old Grail knight at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Microsoft had chosen… poorly. It was clear to everybody watching that Microsoft’s plans to dominate our living rooms were about to crumble into dust.

Even if Microsoft’s plans don’t fail entirely, they are looking more fragile than ever. At every stage, with every decision, Microsoft have managed to paint themselves as the repressive forces of corporate greed standing in the way of people enjoying games in the way that they’ve always enjoyed games. Marketed as a way to increase the computational power of every Xbox One, ‘the cloud’ is one of the big new features of the machine that Microsoft has been eager to push. They promise that it will allow games to offload processing to networked machines, harnessing supercomputers to create persistent worlds filled with artificial intelligence like we’ve never before seen. It is good marketing, even if the technical reality of the claims have yet to be tested, but it became obvious, fairly quickly, that the persistent online connection was also a way of limiting the use and distribution of their software. In short: individual discs could be tracked and tied to one user account. It would mean the end to the second hand market in games as we know it and we wouldn’t even be allowed to share discs among friends, or at least, not quite as easily as we’ll have done in the past.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, the E3 presentation did nothing to allay these fears and actually made things look even worse as it loaded even more unwanted weight onto their already sinking platform. When the price tag of $499 dollars (or £429) was announced, foreheads were slapped around the world and forums immediately filled with obscenities suggesting what Microsoft could do with their new console. I imagine the pain wasn’t particularly ‘phantom’ in the Microsoft boardroom, eight hours later, when Sony revealed that they would be asking £349 for their more powerful console.

Compared to the way that Microsoft had proceded without listening to their core audience, Sony had been listening to the geeks. They’d been watching the online communities where Microsoft’s draconian licensing system had come under ferocious attack. It took very little effort on Sony’s behalf to portray themselves as the good guys, announcing that their machine won’t require an internet connection in order to play games and that those games could be loaned to friends or sold second hand, something that Microsoft has been working so hard to prevent. It doesn’t necessarily mean that Sony dislikes the business plans that Microsoft are adopting but, at this moment of time, it certainly suits them to maintain the pretence that they are happy to carry on with the old ways of doing things.

People have forecast the fall of Microsoft before but never have they seemed so determined to destroy their reputation and alienate a market. Microsoft has a history of making big mistakes from the much lampooned Zune music player to the design flaw in the early Xbox 360’s that saw the widespread failure of the conductive paste that held heat-sinks onto the graphics chips, leading to hundreds of thousands of consoles to overheat and suffer from the now notorious ‘Red Ring of Death’. Windows Vista was a nasty surprise for anybody who had got used to the relatively stable Windows XP but even that was nowhere near the scale of the stupidity which saw them replace the almost perfect Windows 7 with almost completely imperfect Windows 8.

Yet compared to those mistakes, the launch of the Xbox One looks likely to become the new benchmark for corporate overthinking and greed. It’s as though the love of technology, which lay at the heart of the company under Gates, has been lost. In its place, we have spin, marketing, and this big forceful push into our living rooms embodied by Ballmer. It’s an example of what happens when marketing replaces good design at the core of a business model. Yet it’s baffling to think that such intelligent folk could take the credit they’d amassed by producing the best of the previous generation of consoles (despite its flaws) and completely squander it in a matter of weeks. Not only are they attempting to bring in so many unwanted innovations with the Xbox One (or as it’s now being called the ‘Xbone’), they have chosen this time to impose draconian usage restrictions. They have also patented technologies that are hostile to the user, such as the ability to use the Kinect camera to count the number of people watching a movie, so the system can shut down until additional licenses have been brought. It all points to a company with the single intention of screwing more money out of their customers.

Are they really so dumb?

Well, it’s feasible that they know what they’re doing and are playing some different game. Yet you do have to wonder otherwise when the E3 showcase launch was beset with technical problems and then consider that name: ‘Xbox One’. Had nobody in a company that boasts some of the brightest and most-well-paid people of their generation not thought to brainstorm the ways that the ‘Xbox One’ name might be corrupted? It wouldn’t have taken long before somebody would have spotted that is easily abbreviates to ‘Xbone’ and that ‘Xboning’ and ‘Xboner’ might quickly enter into common usage.

The mistakes that Microsoft have made seem obvious with hindsight but they should have been equally obvious with any reasonable degree of foresight. They are the kind of dumb business decisions we’ve come to expect from the company, though they’re also the kind of mistakes they get away with making. In the operating system market, there’s still no real rival to Windows. Linux is remains largely for the enthusiast and Apple’s OSX is restricted to their overpriced technology. In the console arena where there are rivals, Microsoft might be about to learn a hard lesson. Sony made mistakes of their own in the previous generation, primarily in putting too many resources into creating the cell architecture which proved difficult to programme. Now they have learned their lesson and they are keeping things simple. It’s the first lesson of business and lies at the heart of Apple’s success. After all these years, Microsoft still doesn’t seem to understand simplicity. They soon will. Things are about to turn really simple for them really fast: they have a console that few of us want to buy.

Another article (albeit perhaps too long) written in my ever-dwindling hope to get something accepted by Comment is Free in The Guardian. Alas, this disappeared into their inbox and that's all I heard. They did, however, publish an article about a lesbian who married a bloke and now wonders if she's really a lesbian. I'd hesitate to call it without the full facts but I'd guess that marrying a bloke is the last thing a lesbian should to if she wishes to retain her lesbian status. I often wonder, myself, if I should become a lesbian to get an article printed in Comment is Free in The Guardian...


  1. Tragically, there are people out there who are still willing to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt on this one... (I know, I've spoken to one of them)

    For a giggle, watch the Angry Joe (YouTube) videos on the topic - he's about as impressed as you are, but not *quite* as erudite :)

  2. It's so funny you said that. I was reading the Guardian's coverage (I seem to spend all my time reading the bloody Guardian) and I was shocked by the number of people who really still have faith in Microsoft. I guess it's probably a generational thing. I've had so many consoles now that I understand that we shift our loyalties. Last gen, I did like the XBox 360 (despite the noise) mainly because the PS3 graphics always looks washed out. Before that, I loved the PS2, the Gamecube and then before that the Dreamcast and the N64... My real worry is that Microsoft might be right and that out there people don't care about memory and just want a system they can talk to and it goes beep.

    Glad you thought it erudite. LOL. Yes, just watched some of the Angry Joe piece. I don't understand loud Americans but then, he's had over 2 million views. My piece has been read by one person... I have no bloody idea what I'm doing wrong. ;)