Stop me if you've heard this one before: People walk into a consumer electronics store with money, or perhaps even a credit card, firmly in tow. They're intent on purchasing an iPhone to satiate some form of technological hunger, but as they meander past blaring televisions and several conveniently placed displays of that newly released Blu-ray with 12 hours of commentary tracks, something beckons a few feet away. A kiosk--its stiff prongs outstretched with an offering of a shiny Nintendo 3DS.
They play it. They're enamored with it. Now, confronted with a choice, they weigh the pros and cons of both devices. With their objective to purchase the iPhone overthrown, they grab a 3DS from the shelves, run to the register, and zip out the door with their new toy. Meanwhile, the iPhone stays on the shelf--trapped inside its cardboard vessel but maintaining hope that, one day, someone will liberate it from its dark existence. If there's a touch of unfamiliarity with the aforementioned anecdotal tale, it's because it doesn't happen; it won't happen; and it's just stupid.
These devices exist on such different levels from each other that the thought process involved in buying either is vastly different. Apple's iOS gadgets are do-everything multimedia devices. They ostensibly provide the functionality of ultraportable PCs and, therefore, are designed to perform the requisite tasks associated with that designation and perform them well to achieve any success. Thus, justifying a purchase becomes all that much easier because of their multifaceted nature, and if you're specifically looking at an iPhone because you actually need a phone, then it's a mental slam dunk.
Of course, it's true that you can also play games on the iOS devices. In fact, you might have heard about a successful game involving perturbed fowl or another that involves the delicate slicing of fruit, but how many people primarily purchase an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch because they want to play these games? Perhaps a better question is this: How many people play these games because they exist as a part of Apple's app store ecosystem? There isn't much evidence suggesting consumers purchase Apple devices expressly to play games, but the success of games on the iOS platform reveals that there are plenty of people playing them for any number of reasons--most of which can be sufficiently debated in an entirely different topic.
The point is that Apple's mobile products are accidental gaming devices. The infrastructure cultivates a space for games to thrive, but that infrastructure was born out of digital music, the rapid evolution of the iPod hardware, and Apple's ultimate goal to dominate a domestic technological area that was previously languishing. But, to be clear, this is not a dedicated handheld gaming market we're talking about here.
If anything, that part of the gaming universe has prospered because of Nintendo, which has largely dominated it for more than two decades, starting with the release of the original Game Boy in the late 1980s. While each successive version of the Game Boy hardware featured its own changes and enhancements, they were and continue to exist as gaming machines. Are consumers going to be supremely peeved that their 3DSs don't have built-in e-mail clients? What about Flash support? Texting? Various kinds of media playback? No. Consumers know what to expect from these devices and they know what they want from them. They want features that enhance the experience of playing games on that platform and they just want good games. Anything else is secondary.
That doesn't mean Nintendo isn't keen on making its products more mass-market friendly. It dropped the Game Boy name in favor of the DS to distance itself from the infantile association and because it just made sense for marketing purposes. Plus, many games Nintendo has produced for the DS line are conceptually easier to swallow for those still looking at the appetizers on the gaming menu. While these tactics can be construed as "taking on Apple," keep in mind that Nintendo started going down this road long before the arrival of the iPhone and that growing an audience base means that there's going to be some inevitable, if unintentional, clashes for consumers' free time.
That's where the real battle lies. The fight for attention is a universal theme across all entertainment mediums, and relative to this scenario, it begs this question: Which device are you ultimately going to devote your money and time to? The answer comes down not only to personal preference and whatever goals the user has in mind, but it also comes post purchase. You know why you bought an iOS device and you know why you bought a 3DS, but it's up to their respective manufacturers and software developers to make you remember why you did.
(Reality Check is GameSpot's recurring editorial column. Each week, members of the GameSpot editorial team sound off on current gaming events as well as various topics that surround the gaming industry.)