Free the XBOX 360!!!

It's good that Microsoft has begun to allow home users to create XBOX 360 games that they can sell through XBOX Live. Microsoft, however, could do so much more with their TV-attached creation if only they were willing to let third parties take it beyond traditional TV-oriented services.

Finalizing moves they began with the creation of the XNA managed game development system and the XNA Creator's Club that goes along with it, Microsoft has announced that game developers can sell their creations in the XBOX Live marketplace. Microsoft will keep a cut of the sales - around 30%, according to the article on MSNBC, more if the game is "prominently featured". Even so, most of the money does accrue to the developer, thus democratizing the range of games available on the XBOX. This is unique in the gaming space.

It seems a natural move for a platform company like Microsoft. I love my XBOX, but it always seemed to be a weird Microsoft product. Microsoft makes both the hardware and software, and the environment is tightly controlled - only Microsoft-approved software need apply. That's not that unusual for game consoles, but it's certainly a shift for Microsoft, a company that generally makes software designed to be customized and enhanced by third-party developers.

XNA helps to change things...a bit. It's not exactly the wide-open world of desktop operating systems, but it is certainly an improvement on what preceded it.

Even so, I still think there is so much more Microsoft could do with the XBOX, if only they were willing to release a few more well-placed locks (I doubt it will ever reach PC-levels of openness). What other Microsoft platform is attached to the TV set the way an XBOX is? Media Center can be, though even if it isn't, Media Center Extenders allow you to create custom applications that run on your desktop and are "remoted" quite easily to your TV set (though it works best if you write all your applications in MCML). That provides some of the range of functionality I'd like to see, and allows developers to build apps based on the full range of APIs available in desktop Windows.

The problem, however, is Media Center's limited market. Most people have digital cable as their media source, and most people lack computers that have CableCARD insert slots (support for which is now obligatory among cable companies). Don't bother trying to upgrade your system with a standalone CableCARD insert, because you can't; you can only get it as part of a pre-packaged Cablelabs-certified system.

Even if CableCARD support was more common, however, it would be a conceptual shift for most people to attach their cable line to their desktop computers (I do, but I'm not most people). Media Center PCs architected as Set-Top Boxes would be easier for most people, but cost is a barrier there. Most aren't keen on buying a very expensive PC - however aesthetically designed - to stick in their living room.

The XBOX is the only Microsoft platform that is permanently attached to the television. Why, then, does it just have to be a GAME platform?

The new link-up between XBOX and Netflix is a move away from a pure games orientation (though Microsoft has been moving in the direction of media content on the XBOX for quite awhile). That, however, is still within the traditional domain of game consoles and televisions.

Where is the opportunity to make non-game, non-media oriented solutions that run over your TV set? When will I have video communications solutions that run over the largest viewing space in my home through devices I already have attached to it? When will I start to see applications that truly start to turn the television into more than just a passive response device (outside of games)?

Right now, all such innovation has to come from Microsoft, as Microsoft has locked XBOX tighter than a bank vault. This is unusual for Microsoft, because as noted, they are a platform company who made most of their money as an enabler of third party customization and applications.

Were Microsoft to turn XBOX into a true platform, it would play to their competitive strengths in ways that the traditional game console software / hardware / lockdown model does not. Microsoft has the APIs, development tools and experience from the desktop world to make it easy to build TV-oriented applications, irrespective of the processor upon which the software will be run (thank you, .NET).

Nintendo seems to have become the market leader in this generation's game console race not by using more advanced technology, but by thinking up ways to attract more people to gaming. That seems a useful lesson. Maybe the next step in the evolution of game consoles is to turn gaming into just one of the many things you do on that TV-attached device?  Don't just attract non-traditional gamers, in other words.  Attract people who might not play games in the first place.

It seems crazy that Microsoft, given its history, isn't the one doing that.