Microsoft’s hardware business has always felt like something of an also-ran, with the notable exception being the Xbox of course. It’s not that the products were bad per se, indeed many of my friends still swear by the Microsoft Natural ergonomic keyboard, more that it just seemed to be an aside that never really saw much innovation or effort. The Surface seemed like an attempt to change the perception, pitting Microsoft directly against the venerable iPad whilst also attempting to bring consumers across to the Windows 8 way of thinking. Unfortunately the early years weren’t kind to it at all with the experiment resulting in a $900 million write down for Microsoft which many took to indicate that the Surface (or at the very least the RT version) weren’t long for this world. The 18 months that have followed however have seen that particular section of Microsoft’s business make a roaring comeback, much to my and everyone else’s surprise.
The Microsoft quarterly earnings report released today showing that Microsoft is generally in a good position with revenue and gross margin up on the previous quarter of last year. The internal make up of those numbers is a far more mixed story (covered in much better detail here) however the standout point was the fact that the Surface division alone was $1.1 billion for the quarter, up a staggering $211 million from the previous quarter. This is most certainly on the back of the Surface Pro 3 which was released in June 2014 but for a device that was almost certainly headed for the trash heap it’s a pretty amazing turn around from $900 million in the hole to $1.1 billion in revenue just 1.5 years later.
The question that interests me then is: What was the driving force behind this comeback?
To start off with the Surface Pro 3 (and all the Surface Pro predecessors) are actually pretty great pieces of kit, widely praised for their build quality and overall usability. They were definitely a premium device, especially if you went for the higher spec options, but they are infinitely preferable to carting around your traditional workhorse laptop around with you. The lines get a little blurry when you compare them to an ultrabook of similar specifications, at least if you’re someone like me who’s exacting with what they want, however if you didn’t really care about that the Surface was a pretty easy decision. So the hardware was great, what was behind the initial write down then?
That entirely at the feet of the WinRT version which simply failed to be the iPad competitor it was slated to be. Whilst I’m sure I’d have about as much use for an iPad as I would for my Surface RT it simply didn’t have the appeal that its fully fledged Pro brethren had. Sure you’d be spending more money on the Pro but you’d be getting the full Windows experience rather than the cut down version which felt like it was stuck between being a tablet and laptop replacement. Microsoft tried to stick with the RT idea with the 2 however they’ve gone to great lengths now to reposition the device as a laptop replacement, not an iPad competitor.
You don’t even have to go far to see this repositioning in action, the Microsoft website for the Surface Pro 3 puts it in direct competition with the Macbook Air. It’s a market segment that the device is far more likely to win in as well considering that Apple’s entire Mac product line made about $6.6 billion last quarter which includes everything from the Air all the way to the Mac Pro. Apple has never been the biggest player in this space however so the comparison might be a little unfair but it still puts the Surface’s recent revival into perspective.
It might not signal Microsoft being the next big thing in consumer electronics but it’s definitely not something I expected from a sector that endured a near billion dollar write off. Whether Microsoft can continue along these lines to capitalize on this is something we’ll have to watch closely as I’m sure no one is going to let them forget the failure that was the original Surface RT. I still probably won’t buy one however, well unless they decide to include a discrete graphics chip in a future revision.
Hint hint, Microsoft.
My stance on Cloud Gaming is well known and honestly barring some major breakthrough in several technological areas (graphics cards, available bandwidth, etc.) I can’t see it changing any time soon. The idea of local streaming however is something I’m on board with as there have already been numerous proven examples where it can work, a couple of which I’ve actually used myself. So when I heard that Valve was going to enable In Home Streaming as a feature of Steam I was pretty excited as there have been a couple times where I’ve found myself wanting to use games installed on my main PC on other computers in the house. Valve widen the beta last week to include a lot more people and I was lucky enough to snag an invite so I gave In Home Streaming a look over during the Australia Day long weekend.
The setup couldn’t be more simple. At this stage you have to opt into the Steam client beta, requiring you to redownload the client (around 80 MB at the time of writing) and sign into both machines using the same account. Now last time I remember trying to do that I got told I was already logged in somewhere else and thus couldn’t log in but it seems this client version has no such limitations. Once you’re logged into both machines you should be greeted with a list of games available to play that matches your main machine perfectly and, when you go to play them, you’ll have the option to either install it locally or stream it from the other machine.
Clicking on stream will start the game on the other machine its installed on and, should everything go according to plan, it will then appear in another window on the machine you’re streaming to. The first thing you’ll notice though is that the game fully runs on the other machine, including display the graphics and playing sound. This can be somewhat undesirable and whilst it’s easily remedied it shows you what kind of streaming is actually occurring (I.E. DirectX mirroring). Using such technology also places some limitations on what can and cant’ be streamed by simply clicking on the stream button but there are ways around it.
I first tried this on my media PC which is a HP MicroServer that has a Radeon HD6450 1GB installed in it. Now this machine can handle pretty much any kind of content you can throw at it although I have had it struggle with some high bitrate 1080p files. This was somewhat improved by using newer drivers and later builds of VLC so I was pretty confident it could handle a similar stream over the network. Whilst it worked the frame rates were pretty dismal, even in games which weren’t as graphically intense. Considering the primary use case of this would be for underpowered machines to take advantage of the grunt other PCs in the house can provide this was a little disappointing but I decided I’d give it a go on my Zenbook before I passed judgement.
The much better hardware of the Zenbook improved the experience greatly with all the games I tested on it running nigh on perfectly. There were a couple issues to report, namely when the stream broke there didn’t seem to be a way to restart it so I was just left with a black screen and audio playing. The differing resolutions meant that I was playing with a boxed perspective which was a tad annoying and, unfortunately, it appears you’re limited to the resolutions of the box you’re streaming from (I couldn’t run DOTA 2 at 1080p as my monitors are 1680 x 1050). Still the performance was good enough that I could play FPS games on it, although I wasn’t game enough to try an online match.
Overall I’m very impressed with what Valve has delivered with In Home Streaming as it’s pretty much what I expected, bar it being so damn easy to set up and use. Whilst I’m sure they’ll improve the performance over time it does speak volumes to the fact that the end point does matter and that you will have a worse experience on low powered hardware. Still, even then it was usable for my use case (watching in game DOTA 2 replays) and I’m sure that it would be good enough in its current form for a lot of people.
Today the platform of choice for the vast majority of gamers is the console, there’s really no question about it. Whilst video games may have found their feet with PCs consoles took them to the next level offering a consistent user experience that expanded the potential market greatly. PC gaming however is far from dead and has even been growing despite the heavy competition that it faces in consoles. However the idea of providing a consistent user experience whilst maintaining the flexibility is an enticing one and there are several companies that are attempting to fuse the best elements of both platforms in the hopes of capturing both markets.
OnLive is one of these such companies. Their product is, in essence, PC gaming as a service (PCGAAS?) and seeks to alleviate the troubles some gamers used to face with the constant upgrade cycle. I was sceptical of the idea initially as their target demographic seemed quite small but here we are 2 years later and they’re still around, even expanding their operations beyond the USA. Still the limitations on the service (high bandwidth requirement being chief amongst them) mean that whilst OnLive might provide a consistent experience on par of that of consoles the service will likely never see the mainstream success that the 3 major consoles do.
Rumours have been circulating recently that Valve may take a stab at this problem; taking the best parts of the PC experience and distilling them down into a console creating new platform called the Steam Box:
According to sources, the company has been working on a hardware spec and associated software which would make up the backbone of a “Steam Box.” The actual devices may be made by a variety of partners, and the software would be readily available to any company that wants to get in the game.
Adding fuel to that fire is a rumor that the Alienware X51 may have been designed with an early spec of the system in mind, and will be retroactively upgradable to the software.
Indeed there’s enough circumstantial evidence to give some credence to these rumours. Valve applied for a patent on a controller back in 2009, one that had a pretty interesting twist to it. The controller would be modular allowing the user to modify it and those modifications would be detected by the controller. Such an idea fits pretty well with a PC/console type hybrid that the Steam Box is likely to be. It would also enable a wider selection of titles to be available on the Steam Box as not all games lend themselves well to the traditional 2 joystick console controller standard.
At the same time one of Valve’s employees, Greg Coomer, has been tweeting about a project that he’s working on that looks suspiciously like some kind of set top box. Now Valve doesn’t sell hardware, they’re a games company at heart, so why someone at Valve would be working on such a project does raise some questions. Further the screenshot of the potential Steam Box shows what looks to be a Xbox360 controller in the background. It’s entirely possible that such a rig was being used as a lightweight demo box for Valve to use at trade shows, but it does seem awfully coincidental.
For what its worth the idea of a Steam box could have some legs to it. Gone are the days when a constant upgrade cycle was required to play the latest games, mostly thanks to the consolization of the games market. What this means though is that a modern day gaming PC has the longevity rivalling that of most consoles. Hell even my last full upgrade lasted almost 3 years before I replaced it and even then I didn’t actually need to replace it; I just wanted to. A small, well designed PC then could function much like a console in that regard and you could even make optimized compliers for it to further increase it’s longevity.
The Steam Box could also leverage off the fact that many PC titles, apart from things like RTS, lend themselves quite well to the controller format. In fact much of Steam’s current catalog would be only a short modification away from being controller ready and some are even set up for their use already. The Steam Box then would come out of the box with thousands of titles ready for it, something that few platforms can lay claim to. It may not draw the current Steam crowd away from their PCs but it would be an awfully attractive option to someone who was looking to upgrade but didn’t want to go through the hassle of building/researching their own box.
Of course this is all hearsay at the moment but I think there could be something to this idea. It might not reach the same market penetration as any of the major consoles but there’s a definite niche in there that would be well served by something like this. What remains to be seen now is a) whether or not this thing is actually real and b) how the market reacts should Valve actually announce said device. If the rumours are anything to go by we may not have to wait too long to find both of those things out.
As a gamer, specifically one that indulges in both console and PC, I had become used to the upgrade cycles that came pretty regularly for all my hardware. Ever since I got my hands on the first Nintendo Entertainment System I had pretty much every console in my house quickly after their release in Australia. Once I got into the wonderful world of PC gaming this then lead into me spending far too much time at the local computer fairs (which you can still see me at today) gawking at the latest and greatest components, dreaming of the perfect system to build. Nothing has really changed in the world of gaming hardware with yearly product releases still the norm. But there has been a shift that has, until very recently, gone seemingly unnoticed.
In the middle of last year I bought myself a new system consisting of everything but a graphics card since I had 2 8800GTs which seemed to be holding up quite well on my old system. By all accounts it was a beast of a machine at the time although it was quickly trounced by the release of the Core i7 line that was released only a few short months later. I had deliberately bought an expensive DDR3 motherboard in the hopes that I’d be able to squeeze 2 years out of the board by upgrading the processor a year or so later, but that didn’t seem like it would ever happen. Although one thing struck me whilst playing through Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (review coming!): I had everything turned to absolute maximum and my 1.5 year old system was chugging along without a hitch.
In fact all of the games I had purchased recently had no trouble whatsoever with being turned up to the max. I even unlocked a whole bunch of hidden options in Borderlands which made the game almost tear inducingly gorgeous which in the past would’ve had watching a slide show. I admit I hadn’t really thought about this at all and just loved the fact that what used to be considered an “ancient” system was still kicking so much ass. But then it hit me, almost every game in the past year has had a simultaneous release on a console. This is what was extending the life of my pc rig far beyond what it would have been originally.
It really should have come as no surprise since excluding the console market from your game is removing a large potential revenue source before you’ve even released the game. With the Playstation 3 selling 27 million units and the Xbox360 selling 31 million the potential audience you can target increases by a whopping 58 million should you decide to do a console release. In fact if you take the absolutely massive blockbuster title of COD:MW2 you’ll see that a mere 12% of sales were on the PC with the reigning champion being the Xbox360 (which is not surprising considering that the online component of the Xbox360 for MW1 was the superior of the 2). So really you’d be a fool not to target these platforms but that also means that you can’t make the game that strenuous because the hardware in those consoles really isn’t top notch.
Just taking the graphics cards as a talking point (I’m not going to try to compare the CPUs in these since Cell is just too hard to do comparisons on without getting unnecessarily technical) the PS3 has want amounts to a NVIDIA 7800GTX with a higher theoretical performance and the Xbox360 an ATI X1950XT. Theoretically they’re pretty similar in terms of performance but the differences usually show up in implementation (I have it on good word from a developer friend at 2K Games that the PS3 is a coding nightmare). Still any decent geek will look at those models and tell you straight away that they’re 4 years old and 3~4 revisions behind the current generation. So when your largest audience looks like its going to be playing from a console you’ll design the game from the ground up to run well on such hardware. With a console however you have the benefit of doing platform specific optimizations to really get the most out of the hardware, so your game won’t look seriously out dated. A liberty you don’t have when programming for the PC.
So even though my 18 month old machine would have been struggling in the gaming era of years gone by thanks to the ever growing console market us PC gamers are enjoying the benefits of their slower refresh cycle. This has the added benefit of making almost all PCs capable of running modern games with only certain market segments like netbooks struggling to keep up. In the end it all comes down to a giant windfall for the average consumer as their purchases are now more capable than ever before.
There is a darker side to this however. You see when your largest market is going to be on a console there’s the glaring difference between them and their PC brethren: the control scheme. Typically consoles come with some form of proprietary controller that share a similar baseline (a directional pad, dual joysticks, 4 normal and 2 trigger buttons seem to be the norm) whereas the weapon of choice for all PC gamers is the good old fashioned mouse and keyboard. Needless to say the range of input options for a PC game is vastly great than that of a console and this means that the difference in interfaces is quite vast. Whilst the differences should be transparent to the user it is far more typical that the game is built around the target platform and then ported across. I lamented this fact in my Borderlands review where the game was very obviously built for console and then modified to suit the PC. This usually ends up in a screaming mess for the scorned platform which typically ends up being the PC, sporting what many call a “dumbed down” console interface.
Another rare downside to the rise of consoles is that sometimes the game play itself can suffer due to development focused on a particular platform which is later ported. The most typical example of this is platform specific bugs which are usually not game breaking but are enough to detract from the experience. There are some rare occurrences of game play mechanics being changed to suit the platform such as COD:MW2 having an auto-aim on the console when you zoomed in the sights which the PC lacked. I’ve yet to see the core story be modified but there are issues like platform specific content which leaves a few feeling a bit miffed but is probably the rarest of the lot.
In the end it really comes out as a boon for all us gamers. Sure there are some downsides to having such a huge console market but overall it has made games far more accessible driving the need for bigger and better titles. Even though this year was plagued with delayed releases we’ve still managed to see many great titles come out which just makes me all the more excited for what’s in store next year. Would we have had this despite the console market success? It’s possible but I’d find it hard to translate those 50+ million console gamers into PC gamers. Nintendo knew it all along, the biggest market is the one you haven’t tapped yet.
You know there are times when I look back on my life and there seems to be a common theme to most of the hobbies or activities that I took up over the years: they all had some kind of strange technological bent. Take for instance my foray into the world of music, something I was involved in as a hobby for around 2 years. It started off with just trying to solve a problem for a friend but then lead me into the world of Trance music, something which I still revel in today.
It was an odd experience for me, getting into this foreign world of creativity and production. I’d been involved in theatre for several years although I never thought I was any good at it nor was it ever on my mind that I would make a career out of it. Still my involvement had me involved with a lot of creative people and as it became apparent that I was some kind of geek in the making they turned to me with their questions on the bits of tech they’d use to aid in the creative process. Once I had my hands on some of these pieces of hardware something stirred inside me, which at the time I took to mean that I should try my hand at music production.
Queue several long nights spent in front of the computer screen with various programs open in the hopes of creating some form of music. Initially I started out just randomly plodding away in FL Studio (then called Fruity Loops) trying to learn the ins and outs of the program like I had done with any other windows application. After a year or so of doing this I thought I had progressed enough to purchase some actual hardware and this lead me to blow quite a wad of cash on a Roland MC-909 which was in essence a hardware version of FL Studio. I spent many long nights fiddling with this and even brought it to a couple parties, although I’m sure I never unlocked more than 10% of what it was capable of.
I haven’t indulged in this hobby for quite some time now since I’ve been distracted with many other things but my love of trance music has remained and more recently it seems the desire to create as well. I found myself yesterday afternoon losing an hour or so just casually browsing through the Korg website oggling the various synths, samplers and squencers. It then dawned on me, was I just in this for the hardware?
A cursory glance around my house shows a pretty obvious trend. In the main room there are 4 computers, a modded Xbox 360, a Playstation 3, my new Gigabyte T1028, a Canon EOS-400D and several computer components. The story doesn’t change much in the other rooms either with computer hardware littering the closet shelves. Realistically my interest in music probably stemmed from the fact that the bits of tech they use are genuinely complicated parts of machinery and the engineer in me is dying to figure out how they tick. In fact every piece of hardware I’ve described above was bought with its original purpose in mind, only to be modified for some other nefarious purpose.
Casting my mind back through all my previous hobbies its always stemmed from an interest in the tech that they use. Maybe it was my father sitting me in front of a computer at the tender age of 4 and just letting me have at it or maybe it’s just the gen Y in me but the fact remains that a cool piece of tech is a sure fire way to get me interested in something.
It sure does explain why I lost 2 hours one day in wikipedia looking at very light jets 😉