Microsoft's Console Threat: X-Box

Details on the Microsoft X-Box, a new console set to go head to head with the PlayStation2 and Dreamcast next fall, start to reveal themselves.

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For years, the soothsayers have prophesized The Great Convergence - the time when consoles and PCs merge into one, and console gaming as we know it comes to an end. Older generations of gaming machines showcased technology specifically developed for the console as the PC hunkered along with subpar graphics and keyboards meant for writing papers, playing strategic games, and filling in spreadsheets.

With the latest generation of consoles, one would think that convergence is fairly close. Since the early days of gaming, PCs have since featured increasingly more powerful graphics and sooner or later console developers had to tap into this wealth of PC technology. The Dreamcast for instance boasts technologies first developed for PC devices. It uses a Microsoft-developed operating system (Microsoft's Windows CE); a Hitachi SH-4 microprocessor designed for Microsoft's Windows CE; and a VideoLogic PowerVR graphics chip developed originally for the PC. Even Nintendo's next-generation machine will use a processor designed by Big Blue itself - IBM. By doing the math, you can figure out who is beginning to emerge as a potential threat - Microsoft. And so the rumors began at ECTS in London that Microsoft was creating a new console, code-named X-Box (the "X" no doubt being a reference to Microsoft's popular gaming API - DirectX).

Few specifics exist right now, as the company has yet to confirm the existence of the X-Box reference platform. Yet, in the current issue of Games Business, an article about the X-Box asserts that development on the X-Box has long been in development. And Sega of America's Charles Bellfield is quoted in the article as saying, "We've known about this for ages." However, Bellfield claims that the X-Box will not be in direct competition with Sega's Dreamcast console. He also told Games Business, "The way we're going is very different. We are not a digital home-network entertainment-center company. The is aimed at a different market, at a higher cost. It's targeting the PlayStation2."

As ZDNN revealed on Tuesday morning, the X-Box hardware is likely being developed by WebTV engineers - the same crew that originally worked on the failed 3DO hardware and the cancelled M2 project. After a period of lackluster sales with its 3DO console, 3DO sold its hardware division to Samsung, which then named it CagEnt. After negotiations fell through on a project with Nintendo, Samsung then sold the group to Microsoft's WebTV division. "Those guys are still there," said Hugh Martin, former CEO of 3DO Systems. "They are inside WebTV in Palo Alto (Calif.)." Martin went on to say, "I guarantee you that if there's a group that knows how to build a video-game machine, it's the one inside WebTV."

Because of Sega's close ties with Microsoft (its Dreamcast console has more than 70 titles in development under the Windows CE environment), the company's X-Box develoment comes as a surprise. ZDNN posed the question, why would Microsoft want to pursue a new game console when its partner, Sega, has already created a successful one? " Dreamcast meets all the goals they would set for such a device," said Peter Glaskowsky, graphics guru at chip-technology researcher MicroDesign Resources Inc.

As for developer support, several companies admitted to having spoken with Microsoft about the X-Box platform. One in particular, SquareSoft, (maker of the popular Final Fantasy series on the PlayStation), told Bloomberg News last week that, "The biggest player cannot ignore this market anymore." Yoshihiro Maruyama, the vice-chairman of Square Electronic Arts commented, "If they decide to come in, their commitment will be very firm. They could potentially be the biggest competitor to Sony."

The word on the street is that a Pentium III 450MHz level CPU, from either Intel or AMD, will power the console. For graphics, the X-Box will boast an Nvidia GeForce 256 graphics processor. Recently, Nvidia has hinted that its new graphics processor will help developers build console titles for the likes of Sony's PlayStation2. Statements like this may have been hints that the company has been looking into console development. Microsoft was once developing a graphics technology called Talisman, which hasn't been talked about in years. Since Nvidia's introduction of the GeForce 256, there has been talk that the chip was developed with Microsoft's Talisman technology. Because Nvidia produces what is arguably the fastest DirectX chips currently available, a Microsoft and Nvidia partnership appears possible. And rather than release the system on its own, Microsoft will allow PC OEM companies like Gateway and Dell to build their own devices based on the X-Box reference platform.

Regardless, when Microsoft makes an official announcement regarding the platform and its plans to take on the console world, all eyes will undoubtedly be watching. For now, we can only ponder the possibilities of such a system. Microsoft is planning to release the X-Box in late 2000, clearly going head to head with Sony's launch of the PlayStation2. Will the X-Box shake up the console world? We'll be hunting for answers to those questions throughout the next few weeks.

Here's what has been speculated about the system so far:

What is the X-Box?A set-top game console from Microsoft based on a modified version of the Windows 2000 operating system. (Although it hasn't been indicated if it will be the consumer or the true 32-bit workstation version)

What will be inside? An Intel microprocessor as powerful as the chip inside Sony's PlayStation2, a DVD-ROM drive, a graphics chip supplied by Nvidia, and a sizeable (upward of 4GB) hard drive.

What software will it support? CD-ROM and DVD-ROM formats.

How will it control? X-Box will make use of USB controllers; four controller ports are likely since Sony's decision to use only two ports with the PlayStation has been hotly debated by gamers.

What will it offer? The ability to play PC games with no hassle, online gaming through the MSN Gaming Zone, DVD movie playback, TV viewing functions (such as taping television shows to the hard drive), WebTV-based e-mail, and other Internet functions.

How much will it cost? Sources speculate between US$300 and $350.

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