Xbox is looking lost in Microsoft's 'One' strategy

Microsoft has, for as long as I can remember, aimed for a world in which Windows is "everywhere". That didn't and doesn't just mean everyone uses Windows for their desktops and laptops, but that Windows drives a variety of different devices for a variety of different purposes.

For the longest time this goal has always seemingly been out of reach for Microsoft, be that for engineering reasons, business reasons or just poor ideas for how people use their devices. It wasn't until recent years, with the emergence of tablets and mobile, that the company seemed to be getting close.

However, their first attempt wasn't to be. Microsoft took the stance that to unify Windows, they just had to make Windows run on everything and for some reason we're still not sure of, make Windows look and behave the same on different devices.

Windows 10 appears to be the first real and practical realisation of that "Windows everywhere" dream. Windows 10 will drive many different kinds of devices but the experience will be tailored to those different devices. No longer will you be presented with a touch optimised experience if you're using your traditional desktop keyboard and mouse and you shouldn't have to deal with traditional desktop interfaces if you're on a tablet (for example).

The universal app ecosystem is finally falling into place, with "Universal Apps" being able to be written and built once and run on different devices with UIs more suitable to each category of device. Tablets, phones, desktops of different sizes, laptops and Xbox are all now a part of that “Universal app ecosystem”. But the Xbox is a gaming platform, the primary purpose of it is to play games, and universal apps are just a bit on the side.

So how does Xbox fit in to Microsoft’s strategy? I’ll start by taking a few quotes from Satya Nadella himself from todays Windows 10 presentation.

The mobility of the experience is what matters, not the mobility of the device.”

“Today you saw an explicit focus on mobility of experiences, that’s our world view.”

“It’s about the mobility of experiences across devices

Nadella also specified three strategy points for Windows.

  1. Windows as a service
  2. Windows mobility
  3. How Windows and cross-platform come together

The first one isn’t relevant to my point, but the fact Nadella used 2/3 of his “strategy” points describing his vision for making Windows one platform where users do a variety of things. From productivity, to entertainment, to industry specific applications, regardless of the device they’re using to access Windows.

Microsoft is getting very close to their “Windows everywhere” and “One platform” goal and Xbox remaining the isolated gaming platform it is today is counter to almost everything Microsoft as a company wants to achieve.

Hints of recognition

Microsoft are aware of this, I think. Today they announced an Xbox application that allows PC gamers to integrate their PC games into the “Xbox Live” social network, whilst providing some additional features like “GameDVR” for all existing Windows (presumably DirectX) games. On top of that, further integration into Xbox Live with a more infrastructure for PC and Xbox players of particular games to play together, and this was announced along side a previously unannounced PC version of the upcoming Fable Legends.

Perhaps the most interesting, if not particularly groundbreaking for PC gamers, is the announcement of the ability to stream your Xbox One games to Windows 10 devices. I see this as a in-the-meantime patch to get some of the ideals out there and ready now, but it doesn’t achieve Microsoft’s goal, not really. Microsoft fund and develop exclusive content for one of their devices, that content doesn’t have mobility, it is stuck to that device and doesn’t benefit the Microsoft ecosystem as a whole.

"But exclusives are necessary for games consoles!"

If the Xbox becomes just another Windows platform and Microsoft develop their content for “Windows” platforms, which runs on a variety of devices from the Xbox console to the Windows desktop/laptops, or even tablets and potentially even phones, then that aids Microsoft’s goal of creating a Windows ecosystem, with experiences that aren’t locked to particular devices, but are mobile and can be experienced on different kinds of devices.

There is still only one Xbox, one plug-and-play device to access those “Microsoft experiences” in the living room, but depending on the user and the circumstances, that content can be accessed on other devices running Windows too. Not on a Sony console and not on a Nintendo console.

Yes, Microsoft will ensure more sales of a particular piece of hardware by producing games that will only ever appear on that piece of hardware, but what is the long term goal in that? You continue to build a strong brand, but it doesn't fit in beyond some peripheral functionaliy to Microsoft. At which point you'd have to ask why is it necessary that Xbox remains a part of Microsoft? A question analysts have been asking for some years without a convincing answer from top executives.

Where next?

Microsoft has multiple times in the past made promises to PC gamers only for them to break them and fail to deliver on them. But I see Microsoft’s recent moves to suggest they’re “committed” to Windows gaming comes from a different place, it isn’t a small group within Microsoft’s gaming related teams making a few comments here and there, I have a feeling this is part of that “Windows everywhere” strategy, and that comes from the very top.

I'm confident that this isn't a strategy aimed at doing something good for PC gaming, but instead a strategy for reaching that ultimate vision for the company, which PC gaming is (along with, many, many, many other things) a part of.

“Fable Legends is just the first of the major game franchises from Microsoft Studios coming to Windows 10 and we will have more to share in the coming months.”

Microsoft is suggesting that they’re bringing more major game franchises to Windows and as I said there is every reason to not get too excited due to past experiences. However, I think the motivations for doing this now are greater than ever due to a strategy that Microsoft is championing hard, a strategy that is counter to the idea of Xbox as a gaming platform which isolates its core experiences away from that One Windows ecosystem that they’re so eager to build in every direction.

I make no secret that I’d love to be able to play all games on my PC rather than have to use my consoles, but that has been the case for a long time. This post isn’t so much about my preferences, rather that I see a clear path where this could become a reality and it isn’t even one that is particularly aimed at PC gamers. It’ll benefit PC gamers, but that is just a component of this strategy, it isn’t the most important component, far from it, but it is a component.

That path has always been there from the inception of the Xbox, but it is now clearer and more attainable than ever, and in a company that has had repeated questions regarding the relevance of the Xbox to Microsoft both financially and strategically, this could be the way to put an end to those questions.

People interested in the games industry like to look at this purely from an Xbox perspective, they either don't care or don't understand Microsoft as a whole, but that isn't the right way to analyse a product line from a company such as Microsoft, which is currently undergoing a significant transition. If the Xbox wasn't a Microsoft product or was part of a company like Sony or Nintendo, then the path I am describing above probably wouldn't be advisable.

The Xbox may or may not achieve this. But if it doesn't, then I'm fairly confident in saying that it is in spite of Microsoft's current strategic goals, not because of. There are few things Microsoft have been good at communicating in recent years, but one of them has been their ideals about a single, unified, Microsoft ecosystem.