Microsoft’s big reveal this week of the Xbox One X, the high end of its Xbox line and a competitor to Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro, has set the stage for a new conversation about the future of the console industry. This debate isn’t simply about comparing the two devices, deeming one superior, and predicting which will win out. It’s also about the very nature and purpose of a game console in 2017.
We heard a lot about the Xbox One X being “the most powerful console” ever created, and Microsoft dropped frame rate and memory metrics and the phrase “4K” to hammer home the point that it’s built a more capable piece of hardware. But absent from the conversation was Windows 10, arguably Microsoft’s one key advantage that Sony will never be able to replicate.
By not trying to explicitly tie the Xbox to Windows 10, as some rumor watchers predicted the company might try, Microsoft ended up recommitting itself to the idea that PCs and consoles should stay separate — at least for now. In many ways, it feels like Microsoft introduced a stopgap device, indicating that the Xbox’s core identity still remains somewhat in flux as the company figures out how to best merge the idea of a console with that of a PC.
It helps to imagine a starkly different press conference, one in which Microsoft abandoned the idea of a standalone game console as we know it and unveiled a new, unified platform. This theoretical device would have married the best of the PC — upgradability, universal cross-platform play, and premium performance — with the benefits of a console, which lets developers better optimize software around known hardware standards and offers customers plug-and-play accessibility. This new device could have been called the Xbox 10 S, to indicate it runs on the new lightweight Windows 10 S that Microsoft announced back in May.
As my colleague Chris Plante pointed out last week, a console like that would help Microsoft finally realize its dream of an all-in-one entertainment machine — a dream it’s been toying with since Windows Media Center in the early aughts. It would be capable of playing games at the performance level of a gaming PC while also serving as the media hub of the living room. It could incorporate voice and motion control by resurrecting the Kinect and a hands-free digital assistant by tacking on Cortana. It could let you browse the web and download games with optional mice and keyboard input and, best of all, play every possible game regardless of which platform it was primarily developed for.