The name of the game for all large technology companies is platform unification and domination, with each of them vying to become the platform that consumers choose. Microsoft has been on a long and winding road to accomplishing this since they first talked about it 3 years ago and Apple has been flirting with the idea ever since it started developing its iOS line of products with features like the App Store making its way back into OSX. Neither of them are really there yet as Windows 8/WinRT are still nascent and requiring a lot more application development before the platform can be considered unified and there is still a wide schism betwen iOS and OSX that Apple hasn’t really tried to bridge.
Predominately that’s because Apple understands that they’re two different markets and their current product strategy doesn’t really support bridging those two markets. The iOS space is pretty much a consumer playground as whilst you can do some of the things that Apple’s previous OS was known for on there its far from being the creative platform that OSX was (and still is, to some extent). Indeed attempts to bridge their previous products with more consumer orientated versions have been met with heavy criticism from their long time fans and their failure to provide meaningful product updates to their creative powerhouse the Mac Pro has also drawn the ire of many creative professionals.
If I’m honest I didn’t really think that Apple would turn their backs on the creative niche that is arguably responsible for making them what they are today. It’s understandable from the company’s point of view to focus your attention on the most profitable sectors, much like games developers do with the whole console priority thing, but it almost feels like the time when Apple still considered itself a player in the enterprise space, only to quietly withdraw from it over the course of a couple years. Whilst there isn’t much evidence to support this idea the latest rumours circulating that they may be considering a switch to ARM for their desktop line doesn’t help to dispel that idea.
ARM, for the uninitiated, is a processor company based out of Cambridge that’s responsible for approximately 95% of all the processors that power today’s smartphones. They are unquestionably the kings of the low power space with many of their designs being able to achieve incredible efficiencies which is what enables your phone to run for hours instead of minutes. Whilst they may no longer be the supplier for the chips that powers Apple’s current line of iOS products their technology is still the basis for them. Suffice to say if you’ve got any piece of mobile technology it’s likely that there’s some kind of ARM processor in there and it’s the reason why Microsoft chose it as their second platform for the WinRT framework.
Apple switching platforms is nothing new as they made the switch to x86/Intel back in 2006. The reason back then was that PowerPC, made by IBM, was not able to keep pace with the rapid improvements in performance that Intel was making but was also because of the performance-per-watt of their processors which was arguably why AMD wasn’t considered. Apple’s direction has changed considerably since then and their focus is much more squarely aimed at portable experiences which is far better served by the low power processors that ARM can deliver. For things like the MacBook and the Air lower power means a longer battery life, probably the most key metric by which these portable computers are judged by.
There’s no doubt that Apple will be able to make the transition however I’m not sure that the cost to them, both in real and intangible terms, would be worth it. Forgetting all the technical challenges in getting all your third parties to re-architect their applications the unfortunate fact is that ARM doesn’t have a processor that’s capable of performing at the same level that Intel’s current line is. This means for creative applications like photo/video editing, graphic design and the like their current software suites will simply not be viable on the ARM platform. Since the transition is a ways off its possible that ARM might be able to design some kind of high power variant to satisfy this part of the market but traditionally that’s not their focus and since the desktop sector is one of Apple’s smallest revenue generators I can’t see them wanting to bother doing so.
This is not to say that this would be a bad move for Apple at large however. Being able to have a consistent architecture across their entire line of products is something that no other company would be able to achieve and would be an absolute boon to those seeking a ubiquitous experience across all their devices. It would also be a developer’s wet dream as you could make a cross-platform applications far more easily than you could with other platforms. Considering that Apple makes the majority of its money from ARM based platforms it doesn’t come as much surprise that they might be considering a move to it, even if that’s at the cost of creative sector that brought them back from the graveyard all those years ago.
I don’t usually comment on Apple rumours, mostly because they’re usually just a repeat of the same thing over and over again, but this one caught my attention because if it turns out to be true it will mark Apple’s final step away from its roots. Whilst the creative professionals may lament the disappearance of a platform they’ve been using for over 2 decades the saving grace will be the fact that on a feature level the Windows equivalents of all their programs are at feature parity. Apple will then continue down the consumer electronics road that it has been for the past 10+ years and where it will go from there will be anyone’s guess.
The current generation of consoles is the longest lived of any generation of the past 2 decades. There are many reasons for this but primarily it came from the fact that the consoles of this generation, bar the Nintendo Wii, where light years ahead of their time at release. In a theoretical sense both the Xbox360 and the PlayStation 3 had 10 times the computing power of their PC contemporaries at release and they took several years to catch up. Of course now the amount of computing power available, especially that of graphics cards, far surpasses that which is available in console form and the gaming community is starting to look towards the next generation of consoles.
The last couple weeks have seen quite a lot of rumour and speculation going around as to what the next generation of consoles might bring us. Just last week some very detailed specifications on the PlayStation4, codenamed Orbis, were made public and the month before revealed that the new Xbox is codenamed Durango. As far as solid information goes however there’s been little to come by and neither Sony or Microsoft have been keen to comment on any of the speculation. Humour me then as I dive into some of the rumours and try to make sense of everything that’s flying around.
I’ll focus on Durango for the moment as I believe that it will play a critical part in Microsoft’s current platform unification crusade. Long time readers will know how much I’ve harped on about Microsoft’s Three Screens idea in the past and how Windows 8 is poised to make that a reality. What I haven’t mentioned up until now is that Microsoft didn’t appear to have a solution for the TV screen as the Xbox didn’t appear to be compatible with the WindowsRT framework that would underpin their platform unification. Rumours then began swirling that the next Xbox could be sporting a x86 compatible CPU, something which would make Metro apps possible. However SemiAccurate reports that it’s highly unlikely that the Durango CPU will be anything other than another PowerPC chip, effectively putting the kibosh on a Three Screens idea that involves the Xbox.
Now I don’t believe Microsoft is completely unaware of the foot hold they have in the living room when it comes to the Xbox so it follows that either Durango will have a x86/ARM architecture (the 2 currently confirmed WinRT compatible architectures) or WinRT will in fact work on the new Xbox. The latter is the interesting point to consider and there’s definitely some meat in that idea. Recall in the middle of last year that there was strong evidence to suggest that Windows 8 would be able to play Xbox360 games suggesting that there was some level of interoperability between the two platforms (and by virtue the Windows Phone 7 platform as well). Funnily enough if this is the case then it’s possible that Metro apps could run on the Wii U but I doubt we’ll ever see that happen.
Coincidentally Orbis, the PlayStation3 successor, is said to be sporting a x64 CPU in essence eliminating most of the differences between it and conventional PCs. Whilst the advantages to doing this are obvious (cross platform releases with only slight UI and controller modifications, for starters) the interesting point was that it almost guarantees that there will be no backwards compatibility for PlayStation3 games. Whilst the original PlayStation3s contained an actual PS2 inside them the vast majority of them simply emulated the PS2 in software, something that it was quite capable of doing thanks to the immense power under of the PlayStation3. Using a more traditional x64 CPU makes this kind of software emulation nigh on impossible and so backwards compatibility can only be achieved with either high end components or an actual Cell processor. As Ars Technica points out it’s very likely that the next generation of consoles will be more in line with current hardware than being the computational beasts of their predecessors, mostly because neither Microsoft or Sony wants to sell consoles at a loss again.
The aversion to this way of doing business, which both Microsoft and Sony did for all their past console releases, is an interesting one. Undoubtedly they’ve seen the success of Nintendo and Apple who never sell hardware at a loss and wish to emulate that success but I think it’s far more to do with the evolution of how a console gets used. Indeed on the Xbox360 more people use it for entertainment purposes than they do for gaming and there are similar numbers for the PlayStation3. Sony and Microsoft both recognise this and will want to capitalize on this with the next generation. This also means that they can’t support their traditional business model of selling at a loss and making it up on the games since a lot of consoles won’t see that many games purchased for them. There are other ways to make up this revenue short fall, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can keep using the console as a loss leader for their other products.
All this speculation also makes the idea of the SteamBox that much more interesting as it no longer seems like so much of an outlier when lumped in with the next generation of consoles. There’s also strong potential that should a console have a x86/x64 architecture that the Steam catalogue could come to the platform. Indeed the ground work has already been done with titles like Portal 2 offering a rudimentary level of Steam integration on the PlayStation3, so it’s not much of a stretch to think that it will make a reappearance on the next generation.
It will be interesting to see how these rumours develop over the next year or so as we get closer to the speculated announcement. Suffice to say that the next generation of consoles will be very different beasts to their predecessors with a much more heavy focus on traditional entertainment. Whether this is a positive thing for the gaming world at large will have to remain to be seen but there’s no mistaking that some radical change is on the horizon.