According to a press release today, Microsoft will extend its XBOX Live network to include PC gamers, creating for the first time the ability for XBOX gamers to play against PC gamers. This has been in the pipeline for awhile, apparently, and according to an older Engadget post, the possibility of adding Windows Mobile cell phones into the online play mix has been mooted, though isn't a feature included in today's announcement. Current XBOX Live subscribers don't have to do anything special, as they can use their XBOX Live tag on their PC as is.
In the talkbacks to the Engadget post relating to this announcement, there are concerns that PC gamers will wipe the floor with XBOX gamers, given the highly responsive nature of PC keyboards and high-end laser mice. Some think Microsoft's Trueskill™ technology will account for such hardware advantages and help to serve as a machine-calculated handicap that is used when choosing whom to play against. Perhaps some other levelling mechanism will be used. Unfortunately, we won't know for sure until May 8th, the release date for the newly extended service.
The list of PC games that support the new services will be limited at launch - Halo 2 for Windows Vista, Shadowrun and UNO (?!?!?), but I don't expect that to be a long term limitation (nor does Microsoft, as they call it their "First Wave").
More interesting to me is that this is a continuation of a process whereby Microsoft melts XBOX into its wider software ecosystem. Microsoft now supports the creation of custom games that run on both an XBOX 360 and a machine running Windows using XNA, a .NET runtime optimized for game development. XBOX 360s can serve as Media Center Extenders to a PC running Windows Media Center, which is the only way I watch TV anymore.
I hope this process continues. XBOX was allowed to operate in its own universe so that it would be free to do whatever it needed to do in its battle with game console market leader, Sony. This meant that, for the most part, it didn't need to concern itself with ecosystem issues which might press upon it due to the normal political jockeying that takes place within Microsoft.
Now, however, XBOX is being brought into the ecosystem fold, and that is as it should be, as one of Microsoft's competitive advantages is the breadth and extent of its software ecosystem. Sony, and newly surging Nintendo, don't have that.
There are, however, areas where they could go further. Take the ability to make a video call to another XBOX gamer. Why can't XBOX users call friends using Live Messenger (and by extension, Yahoo, now that both companies have built interoperability into their networks), or log in using Live Messenger credentials and thus see their contact list? That would make sense, and Messenger IS a Microsoft property, so its certainly possible. Such integration could go even further, with friends able to pop messages up on your screen (limited by contact list, of course), though response would obviously be difficult due to the lack of a keyboard.
Anyway, just a thought...