Game hardware acquire new functions

At the E3, established and hopeful players in the video game hardware business have announced plans to cram everything from Web browsing to movies into game consoles.

A game machine should play games, right?

LOS ANGELES--That seemingly simple proposition has gotten a whole lot more complicated at the Electronic Entertainment Expo here, as established and hopeful players in the video game hardware business have announced plans to cram everything from Web browsing to movies into game consoles.

The biggest announcements came from Sony, which revealed plans to team with America Online, RealNetworks and others to bring Internet functions such as Web browsing, email, streaming media and instant messaging to its PlayStation 2 console.

Kaz Hirai, president of Sony Computer Entertainment of America, said in an interview that the online features will enhance game-playing and expand the usefulness of the PS2, in ways that may not be apparent yet.

"If you wait too long, the opportunity goes by," he said. "We want to be taking a leadership position online, to the extent we can offer compelling gameplay and new choices for consumers. The best thing for us is to offer consumers a choice."

Rivals insist that trying to cram non-gaming functions into a game machine doesn't make sense from a business or a consumer viewpoint.

Nintendo's upcoming GameCube console will have adapters for connecting to broadband and dial-up Internet connections, but so far the game industry veteran has no specific plans for online functions.

"There's two entirely different camps," said Peter Main, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Nintendo of America. "The camp occupied by Sony and Microsoft is clearly one of future potential being marketed today.

"We're about the here and the now. And still keeping the ability to be all of those things when the opportunity does present itself."

But those opportunities are unlikely to include Web browsing, e-mail or other functions typically handled by a PC, he said.

"We don’t quite understand that," Main said. "It doesn’t seem to exactly be a part of gaming.

"Gaming is about discretionary, disposable time and money. It doesn’t have the overlay of multitasking. It's about dropping out, the same way you do when you plop down on the couch at 8 to watch ‘Cheers.’ "

Seamus Blackley, chief Xbox technical officer for Microsoft, was equally skeptical of using a game console for non-gaming tasks.

"We talked to about 10,000 people in the U.S. alone and asked them what they want from a console," he said. "None of them, not a one, said they want to do e-mail or Web browsing."

And if anyone should know the market for doing Internet tasks via a TV screen, Blackley said, it should be Microsoft, which runs WebTV.

"What kills me is that we have a whole business devoted to putting Internet content on TV screens," he said. "If there was another business opportunity there, we'd know it."

Besides Internet functions, the beefy hard drives built into the Xbox and to be sold as an add-on for the PlayStation 2 have prompted speculation the devices could be used as digital video recorders, similar to TiVo units. Blackley has openly ridiculed the idea, saying the Xbox hard drive will be plenty busy with gaming tasks. Hirai said the 40GB hard drive that will plug in to the PS2 will fill up quicker than some might expect once users start downloading game content.

"Technically, it's possible," he said of the TiVo idea. "It's not something we've really looked at. But hard disk drives are hard disk drives."

Video recording is at the heart of Nokia's Media Terminal, however. The cell phone giant is resurrecting the "convergence" concept to pitch the multi-function set-top box, which will play DVDs, record TV programs on the built-in hard drive, perform Internet functions from e-mail to streaming media and play games written for the Linux operating system that will power the unit. The device is expected to go on sale this fall in Europe and late this year or early next in the United States.

Nokia is counting on consumers who aren't hardcore gamers or power Internet users to embrace a device that offers multiple functions in one streamlined form, said Romulo Pinheiro, product market manager for Nokia.

"The selling point is really the convergence argument," he said. "Look at all the products you'd have to own to get the functionality we're offering--a DVD player, a video recorder, a game console, a Web appliance. And none of them are integrated; they're not made to work together easily."

The current array of Linux games is fairly slim, but that will change as Windows game developers see more incentive to take on the relatively simple task of porting titles to Linux, Pinheiro said. And the games that emerge are likely to be more family-friendly titles than the shooting and punching games that proliferate on game consoles.

"We believe there's a big market for the casual gamer," Pinheiro said. "We feel we have to have a product that is compelling to the whole family."