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Why Xbox One concerns are overblown

Microsoft’s handling of the Xbox One launch has been a PR disaster. By sending mixed and confusing messages, it looks like they’ve been making it up as they go along, reacting to gamers’ concerns without effectively making their case.

But the scale of concern over privacy, connectivity and game ownership is disproportionate and largely unreasonable.

Kinect privacy

The most justifiable angst is over the Kinect sensor, which is “always listening” for commands.

Having a product from a corporation with a questionable history of ethics in the centre of your home, always listening, is unnerving. What if the audio was accidentally recorded or transmitted, or if governments forced Microsoft to grant access to that information in the name of fighting terrorism?

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“It comes down to a balance between cost and benefit”For this and the other controversial features of the Xbox One, it comes down to a balance between cost and benefit. Here, the tradeoff is between privacy and utility: the more a thing knows about you, the more helpful it can be. If the Xbox One is always listening, it can turn on instantly.

But this balance isn’t a good one. The benefit of being able to turn on your console isn’t worth the potential privacy risks that an always listening device brings. You can easily pick up a controller to turn it on, knowing that there is no risk of eavesdropping.

Thankfully, this feature can be altered in the console’s settings. Should users be prompted to change these settings when the console is first plugged in, as Apple products prompt for location services? I think that’s a reasonable compromise.

An always-on, connected console

The next concern is tangled up in the other two, but in isolation, shouldn’t be a problem for many.

Almost all of the devices we use these days have a persistent connection to the Internet. Your phone is always connected. Your tablet is always connected. Your laptop or desktop, your set-top box and even your car are always connected.

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“Almost all of the devices we use these days have a persistent connection to the Internet”This shouldn’t be a problem, because it can bring enormous benefits to users at very little cost. Apps can do processing in the background, update themselves and alert you to things as they happen. In games, the assumption of an Internet connection opens up a world of possibilities for game developers, who can harness cloud computing to deliver experiences which they couldn’t before.

The only issue with the Xbox One’s implementation is that it requires such frequent check-ins with servers, so if you’re away from your connection or it goes down, you’re cut off from your games. This isn’t likely to affect many, but its inflexibility will lead to some frustrating experiences.

While a more elegant solution to the check-in problem is needed, the fact that the Xbox One assumes it has a connection to the Internet is perfectly reasonable given the world we live in and the benefits that can bring.

Game ownership

And so to game ownership and pre-owned games.

Allow me a quick thought experiment: what if all of the games on the Xbox One were less than 2GB, like most iPad or Xbox Live Arcade games are?

The console would have no disc drive because it wouldn’t need it. All games would be digitally distributed and so there would be almost no expectation of being able to sell on that content to someone else. Music is already like this. Apps are like this. Books, TV and film are rapidly becoming like this.

The only reason why people are talking about pre-owned games is because the Xbox One has to use legacy technology – a disc drive – to get around the fact that broadband speeds are not yet fast enough to transfer multi-gigabyte files.

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“The only reason why people are talking about pre-owned games is because the Xbox One has to use legacy technology”The Xbox One is designed and viewed by Microsoft as a device for the digital world, where everything is stored in the cloud and transmitted down to clients to be played. In their view, a disc is just a way to get that data to consoles quicker than over a broadband connection.

But, of course, there’s a perfectly good argument against this model. Games have been on physical hardware for decades and by selling this hardware to other people, you are transferring the ownership of it. A disc is seen as a container for goods, not a content delivery mechanism.

The use of a cloud-centric business model and system architecture, alongside the use of physical discs creates a huge conflict. Why is a disc not what it used to be? People don’t change their expectations overnight.

Microsoft are stuck because they’ve designed the Xbox One for a digital-only future, a future which we largely live in today. But console games cannot exist in that future while files are so large and broadband speeds so low.

“Should Microsoft try and entice gamers towards the future by showing them the benefits or push them towards it?”Straddling these two realities is a difficult balancing act. Should Microsoft try and entice gamers towards the future by showing them the benefits or push them towards it, shaking a stick at them if they don’t fall into line? Obviously the former should be their choice, but at the moment, they don’t seem to have decided.

The great discontent

That people are uneasy is understandable, but I don’t believe these three concerns warrant the outcry that we’ve seen. Should Microsoft do better to communicate their vision and allay concerns? That is beyond doubt.

The author of this fine article

is the Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2000. Get in touch on Twitter @PhilipMorton.

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