I imagine I'll have some more structured thoughts to share soon, but my initial worry about the newly-announced Xbox One is that I have no idea who it's for. Much as Microsoft's ill-fated attempt to start new conversations in user interface led to Metro, Xbox One seems intertwined with a media-center ambition. If only, it seems to ask, we can convince people we have enough features, then maybe we can get them over the hurdle and own the living room.
It probably looks very compelling on a slide or internal strategy memo, but I personally think "owning the living room" has long been proven to be strictly the domain of executive fantasies, akin to the love affair with virtual worlds or gamification. It's based on a faulty premise that people want a living room computer or hub, an idea to which they consistently react with apathy. In the cold light of day such hubs always fail the marketing story test, and on a simpler level, they're just a pain.
Nobody, it turns out, cares.
Xbox One's pitch is almost word-for-word identical to that for Xbox 360 which we've seen at E3 for the last three years. It's Kinect, gestures and voice, sports on TV, endless side-additions like Skype and Internet Explorer and a deeply confused story about having a relationship with your TV. It's the platform story of the games machine that wants to be anything but, and Microsoft keeps pushing it despite the reactions and usage of all of the above being generally muted. People may have bought millions of Kinects, but come on already. They were novelties Microsoft, don't you know that?
It seems not. The whole world of tablets, second screen and much cheaper TV streamers seems to simply not exist in the Microsoft universe and we all continue to bathe in cathode ray glow of television. In that world, everyone wants to trade in precise and easy-to-use digital controls for imprecise and annoying voice recognition, and the flailing of arms. In that world, everyone still watches live television events and nobody uses services like Netflix, Hulu or iTunes. In reality of course television is simply not as important as it once was, the kids of today don't particularly watch television, and the mums and dads watch DVRs of their favorite series. The only time that anyone gets together to watch anything live is when something genuinely newsworthy is happening, or there's a big game.
Furthermore all of this visioning comes at the expense of weight. As with any big convergence technology, the effort to stack everything all into one box tends to make it big. The Xbox One is frankly huge in an age where small is good, and the Kinect is farcically large for a webcam. A fancy webcam perhaps, but a webcam nonetheless. The interface looks as impositional as ever, riddled with conflicts over what kind of content it's supposed to serve. So if you want one you better make room, both physically and cognitively.
Xbox One also pretty much demands high end partnerships. It's telling that what was once the home of indie gaming and led to a lot of groundswell support for games like Geometry Wars, Braid and Castle Crashers. At their height these games may never reach Call of Duty proportions, yet they are essential for forming fan cultures. Sony earned itself an incredible amount of goodwill for launching Journey. But can Microsoft really claim to even be in that ballpark any more? These days the Xbox message is all grandoliquent big productions like Madden and Forza. Where are the evangelists supposed to come from if no attention is paid to their interests?
And there are further kickers: This isn't a device to replace your cable set top box, it needs one to work with it. It requires Kinect to be connected to work. It requires games to be installed and is grey about second hand games. And it may have some games. And a Halo TV series. And it won't play Xbox 360 games.
Has Redmond become so unmoored that up is down, black is white and all sense of a resonant marketing story has long departed? It certainly seems that way. One vast and terrible echo chamber rationalising itself into telling itself all that it wants to hear, and leaving everyone else behind. Just like Surface, Metro, Windows Live and Zune. And so many others before. Arguably this is the (continuing) result of a company with more money than sense lost in bureaucratic dreams.
Game consoles, for better or worse, are primarily still thought of as for games. They are specialist devices (the market is still much smaller than for mobiles, tablets, laptops and televisions) and still overwhelmingly used for games. With only 18bn hours of entertainment served last year to a subscribing audience of 40m, the evidence is clear that TV (which probably mostly means Netflix) is only a minor selling point, especially in an time when live TV has itself become an anachronism.
But Microsoft seems to either not hear this, or not want to hear it. It wants to tell us how we should all adopt new features, not asking what we think games should be next. It wants to dictate, as it always does, and does not understand when we don't accept its dictation. Will it take a Dreamcast-sized failure for Microsoft to finally realise just how trapped it's become by circular thinking? Increasingly it seems so.