The Xbox Needs Apps

The original Xbox launched in November 2001, with the Xbox 360 following just four years later, the shortest console cycle ever. The four-year anniversary of the 360 is five months away, but yesterday Microsoft proclaimed that "the future of home entertainment has a new name: Xbox 360." Huh.

It became remarkably clear today that Microsoft sees more than months left in the Xbox 360—more like years. Microsoft's big ballyhoo, its motion control Project Natal, won't even arrive until 2010. And likely deep into 2010—think next summer. The Zune Video Marketplace will deliver 1080p instant streams; you'll be able to download full retail games come August, cutting out the Gamestop middleman; Netflix integration is even deeper; and Facebook and Twitter are now wrapped in. Why would Microsoft do all this for a console progressing into obsolescence in the next year or two? It's not simply pumping out new games or features—they're growing and entrenching the current platform.

Sure, there's a incentive to extend this console cycle simply because of the high costs of development—the time and money that goes into producing a major game for the Xbox and PS3 easily approaches that of a (small) Hollywood film because of their enormous complexity. There's still returns to be made on this generation. So perhaps Sony wasn't so foolish for declaring that the PS3 is a ten-year console. The Wii is markedly cheaper, simpler and less powerful, so part of me suspects you will see a new console from Nintendo more quickly than from Microsoft and Sony.

But it's more than that, especially when you consider how Microsoft and Sony are extending the life of their machines—they're turning them into platforms beyond gaming consoles. Xbox Live's Marc Whitten remarked at the Xbox party tonight that a big part of the reason behind the New Xbox Experience was to build the framework for these features. It's interesting to think about the NXE as not simply the UI overhaul and stuff we reviewed a few months ago—it's everything after that. We are squarely in Xbox 360 2.0.

The Xbox Needs Apps

Think of it another way: If we were talking about all of these new features on a computer or mobile—Netflix streaming, Last.fm, Zune Marketplace, Remote Play—what we would call them instead of features? Apps. That's what makes this generation more platform than console—they have apps that tap into and expand their power in new and different ways, just like apps do on any other kind of platform.

But so far, we've only seen first-party apps. Or at best, closely partnered third-party apps. It's effectively a closed system. Which reminds of us of another formerly closed system. The iPhone. It did some neat things before iPhone 2.0. But it was painfully limited. The iPhone wasn't truly powerful until it got apps. Until it allowed basically anybody to develop apps for it, not just the chosen few (well, Google). That's exactly what the Xbox 360 and PS3 need to live even longer. And not just longer lives, but better, richer lives. Cheap SDKs for anybody to develop apps. Just think of how long ago Twitter would've come to Xbox.

It's already halfway there—you stream videos, download software, apply updates, listen to music, social network—and only going even further in that direction with the stuff we're seeing it at E3, that the old, artificial distinction between these consoles and "real computers," which was already laughable, is completely obsolete. So that objection, that consoles aren't supposed to be like computers, they're supposed to be self-contained is completely meaningless. It's time to open the Xbox 360 and PS3 to apps, so we can see what they can really do.