A recent interview with Albert Penello, senior director of product management at Microsoft, revealed some of the reasoning behind Microsoft’s reluctance to get the Xbox One involved with the virtual reality (VR) market. The interview also revealed something deeper about Microsoft’s position, and what might be holding it back.
At its heart, Microsoft is still a software company. Despite expanding into hardware, first with the original Xbox, then the Windows Phones and the Surface tablet PCs. However, even here, Microsoft was largely reliant on other companies. The Windows Phone was the result of Microsoft’s investment in, and eventual acquisition of, Nokia, while the original Xbox was not built by Microsoft themselves, but farmed out to other manufacturers.
Herein lies the rub. The Windows Phone was ultimately a failure, the original Xbox never lived up to Microsoft’s high hopes and while the Xbox 360 ultimately did stupendously well, its run was nonetheless marred by the ‘Red Ring of Death’ debacle, an issue that, at its core, was a result of Microsoft’s unfamiliarity with creating hardware.
For those not aware, a large number of the problems of the issues with the Xbox 360 came down to inadequate cooling, an issue exacerbated by Microsoft’s decision to design what the machine looked like first, before confirming the internal structure. Also contributing was the return of the 3rd-party manufacturers, and an issue involving lead-free solder creating a poor yield of acceptable Xbox 360 devices leaving factories. Added to this is the failure of the Kinect, and the backlash to the Xbox One when it was first announced based upon the ‘always on’ internet connection requirement, attempt to block used videogames and other factors, and you have a company who is understandably gun-shy of getting involved with more hardware development.
The extended Wired interview with various names at Microsoft’s Xbox division, including Penello, revealed a company who is big on design, on sound, on looks, but one that is not too enthusiastic about the actual guts of the beautiful machines it is creating. The uncharitable could take this as style over substance, others might see it as Microsoft attempting to stick to its strengths. It has been noted that Microsoft turned to its OEM partners at Dell, Acer, Samsung, HP and others to create the Windows 10 mixed reality headsets, instead of doing the work itself. This is telling.
At its core, the Xbox One, and its more powerful younger sibling, the Xbox One X, are essentially powerful Windows 10 PCs in a slickly designed box. A number of developers have come forward to say that Xbox One titles are trivially easy to port over to Windows 10.
With that in mind, it should be just as easy to make the Windows 10 mixed reality headsets cross-compatible with the Xbox One X, but this has not happened. Indeed, many experts have been expecting exactly this, even some from within Microsoft itself.
The only real answer seems to lie in Microsoft’s reluctance to let itself be burned on hardware if virtual reality turns out to be a flash in the pan, which remarks from Penelllo seem to indicate that at least some senior figures at the company do in fact believe.
Perhaps eventually Microsoft will overcome its hardware phobia and we will see Xbox paired with VR. Maybe they can use some VR therapy applications to help.