Handheld Trouble in Redmond: Xbox Surface 7

Handheld Trouble in Redmond: Xbox Surface 7

A recent article from The Verge states that Microsoft has development well under way for a gaming-focused tablet under the branding of Xbox Surface. The question I have is: Are we talking about a Microsoft Xbox 360 product, or a Microsoft Zune product?

First, let’s be clear about the product that’s being discussed. Microsoft has several tablets in development already. Tablets appeal to many causal users due to their form factor, interface and versatility. App level gaming is big part of the entertainment that tablets provide. At the same time, Microsoft is in the process of rolling out Xbox SmartGlass and Windows 8, products that are designed to take advantage of the current status of tablets as part of many homes.

Xbox Surface (which I’m dubbing “Xbox Surface 7”) is a different animal altogether. The information contained in the Verge article, coupled with the leaked specifications from last June, outline a tablet that’s focused on gaming – a tablet with an operating system streamlined to accommodate gaming. This suggests something as closed as the Xbox 360. The Xbox Surface 7 is also supposed to natively support multiple wireless controllers, support that would have to be implemented per game. This brings me to two possibilities.

Naturally, as I alluded to earlier, Microsoft has had incredible success with the Xbox 360, but other initiatives have been comparative failures. The Zune is an obvious example, and many would be quick to also point out products like Windows Vista. More central to this discussion are gaming related products.

In Windows 8, Microsoft has quickly made some enemies in the PC gaming community, including Valve’s Gabe Newall. Having used Windows 8 Consumer Preview side-by-side with Windows 7 for months, I can say that much of the negativity has to do with Microsoft’s hybrid interface. Forcing the touchscreen/dashboard interface onto PC users is not a joy to deal with. More importantly are a convergence of gaming threads that still seem half baked. Microsoft has again created a new area for games in Windows 8 that disregards convention and seems pointless. For example, Windows 8 wants the user to have an Xbox Live account. Aside from the normal crossover between Games for Windows Live (another Microsoft gaming debacle) and Xbox Live, there seems to be little point in doing this, yet Windows tends to act as though it’s necessary and beneficial.

Microsoft has not only produced stillborn gaming suites in each version of Windows, but has also strategically either eliminated or handicapped games published by Microsoft for Windows. On the other hand, the company has grown Xbox Live and the Xbox 360 platform into an industry leader (except in Japan). Much of this success is tied to features that Microsoft required from the developers from Day One. This is no longer the case, but I can remember when an XBLA game was required to fit and run from a 50 MB Microsoft memory card. These days, the Xbox Slim doesn’t even support those same memory cards. Likewise, each XBLA game is required to have a free demo (often the first level) with a buy option at the end. Then there’s the sixteen-player voice support capability. These requirements raise the cost of development, but also have been embraced by players.

With Windows, Microsoft has treated games haphazardly, even while the company spearheaded an integration with the internet on the 360. So, when it comes to the Xbox Surface 7, which tact will Microsoft take? And will it be something, given the variety of gaming options already available, that consumers will embrace?

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