Game consoles have historically been their own little colony off to the side of technology. For a while that's because they were seen mainly as an expensive kids' toy, and later because they weren't germane to the music sales or laptops or iPods battles of the time. Now, though, as we're digitizing everything in our lives, that TV-connected box in the middle of every family's living room is suddenly looking pretty important.
Google, Apple, and Microsoft want to be your one-stop digital shop. All three have a desktop OS and a mobile OS. All three are making their own hardware now. They all have stores where you can buy movies and music, and they all have their own music streaming service. They are all branching out, increasingly, into more and more parts of your life. Apple's in your car. Google's on your face. Microsoft is already in your living room. But their offerings are too spread out, too fragmented.
The ultimate for all of these companies, and for you, is One Device. You have one thing—probably your phone, ultimately—and that one thing will do everything for you. It'll control your music system and TV, and it will shepherd all your messages and access all of your photos and movies. It will also probably play your video games.
We're not there yet, but we're close. And Apple and Google's inevitable game-playing, little black living room boxes could be what finally gets us there.
State of Play
Microsoft understood that a gaming console could be a valuable Trojan horse into your living room. Or at least, it was in the best position to act on the idea, with the Xbox 360. The Xbox One is a "real" console, in that it fits into the traditional mold of what a gaming console "should be," while also being a portal into a world of movies, music, social, and more. But that also hamstrings Microsoft in a way, as it tries to leverage a box it knows will be in millions of homes into the broader technological landscape. Also, it's hard to compete if your everything-machine costs $500 and the next guy's is a fraction of that.
Google, meanwhile, has had zero luck getting an Android streaming box off the ground. Third-party stuff has mostly fallen flat, the Nexus Q never shipped, and Google TV-enabled television sets have been punchlines for years now. Even the Ouya, a wonderful little idea, met fairly withering reviews. Google-branded hardware, on the other hand, is generally awesome, and inexpensive. So while it's playing from behind somewhat, it'll be ready to make a serious impact.
Apple seems like it would be in the best position to create an all-in-one gaming box, with the popular and inexpensive Apple TV already running a modified version of iOS. It has a history of games being profitable for developers on iOS. It's already got AirPlay speakers in many homes, and if Siri improves to the point it could power voice commands like a Kinect, you'd have a compelling case for the living room.
What would make an Google or Apple "console" so formidable is that it wouldn't have to beat the Xbox or PS4. They wouldn't even have to compete directly. (Though, if you think both companies wouldn't shell out big bucks for a few prime exclusives, you're nuts.) It would just have to exist. It would tread water, attracting developers steadily into ecosystems that have proven to be profitable, and wait for the technology powering it to catch up with the technology powering Microsoft and Sony's heavy hitters.
The entire tech industry is trending this way. Intel has spent the past several years powering itself down to be able to make chips that are efficient enough to be in phones, but still powerful enough to display newer and better graphics. This year's kind of amazing Haswell chips and their 12-15-hour laptop battery life are born form that. Meanwhile, Qualcomm, AMD, Samsung, Nvidia, and, lately, Apple, are pushing SoC chips (which you find in tablets and phones) higher and higher up the graphical food chain. The Tegra 4 already runs fairly current games fluidly. And while it might gets its brains bashed in by this next generation of consoles, are you sure that's going to be the case four years from now? Or five or six? Sometime this generation, mobile processors will pass the consoles, again, and everyone will look around and ask each other, Wait, why don't we just put this on Android?
The other advantage the underpowered consoles of the future will have? The point of Good Enough. Every time you shift away from one standard for another, there's resistance until you hit the point that the new thing is good enough at whatever it's replacing for all its benefits to shine through. Look at the MacBook Air. It was an idiotic product in 2008. It was small and beautiful for its time, but it was underpowered and overpriced. Then, in 2010, it got a makeover and some new flash-based guts and a chipset update. Its parts still weren't current, but the Core 2 Duo was good enough to get the job done for most people doing everyday computer tasks. Three years later, ultrabooks and MacBook Airs are the dominant form of laptop.
This happens all over technology. We're approaching that point with mirrorless cameras versus entry or even midlevel DSLRs. We reached it with digital cameras themselves with the Canon G1 or the Nikon Coolpix 990 (or maybe the D1 or 1DS). The Tesla might be what finally gets us there with electric cars. The point is, there will always be a tradeoff, but there is always a point where you can decide the step backward you're taking in one respect doesn't offset the steps ahead you're making elsewhere.
For a Google or Apple gaming system—or more accurately, platform—those gains would be significant. You'd get infinite backwards compatibility, refined distribution systems, and total integration to all of your media. More importantly, though, you'd still have mostly acceptible graphics (and with the right art direction, beautiful, even), and all the room for innovative gameplay, story, and creativity that you've seen in games for decades.
That won't be what we see at the start, of course. When and if Apple and Google pull the trigger, they'd probably be more like upscale Ouyas. That's OK, though. We can wait for the future, as long as we know it's coming.