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The Pulpit
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Weekly Column

X Blocks: How Microsoft's X-Box is Attempting to Hurt the Upcoming PlayStation 2 Introduction and Why It Probably Won't Work

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

Tip O'Neill, when he was Speaker of the House, liked to say, "All politics is local," which meant that even foreign policy had to be considered in the light of how it would effect local constituencies. This adage applies equally well in any political situation, which by definition is whenever one organized group is trying to influence voters and thereby take control. So is the consumer electronics business political? Of course it is. Users vote with their wallets. And this week, the dark horse candidate is Microsoft's X-Box.

X-Box is Microsoft's proposed game machine that was announced without much detail a few months ago. I wrote about X-Box back then, making the point that just because Microsoft announces something doesn't mean we'll actually see it come to market. I saw the X-Box as a way of distracting game developers from writing games for Sony's PlayStation 2.

Now we are three weeks away from the PlayStation 2 U.S. rollout, and suddenly there are technical details of X-Box available to write stories and columns about. Microsoft pretends it is upset that this confidential information has been leaked, but the truth is it's intentional. A little X-Box buzz right now can only hurt PlayStation 2, which Microsoft has correctly labeled as a threat.

Why release the information now rather than on the eve of Sony's August 31 intro? Because now is a quiet time when stories are more likely to be written. Sony plans to spend $1 billion to promote PlayStation 2 in the U.S. market. Compare that to the $400 million Microsoft spent to introduce Windows 98. By the end of the month there will be so much PlayStation 2 hype that any competing tech stories will be buried. This doesn't bode well for poor Sega, which has an announcement of its own coming at about the same time.

The X-Box technical details are fascinating. Microsoft is telling developers that the X-Box will have a 733 MHz Pentium III processor, 64 megabytes of SDRAM, a 3-D NVIDIA graphics chip, a DVD-ROM drive, 3-D audio processor, four game ports, an expansion port, TV connector, several (nonstandard) USB ports, 100 megabit-per-second Ethernet and a stripped-down version of Windows 2000 for an operating system. That's a heck of a lot to cram into a $299 box, but remember, this is a machine that won't appear for another year or more when all these parts will be cheaper than they are today. And game companies nearly always take a loss on the hardware anyway. Sony is planning to swallow $1 BILLION in U.S. hardware subsidy losses — $100 per machine! — in 2000-2001. The real profit comes from the games.

Looking deeper into the specs, we can see a device that will be faster than any PC by virtue of its stripped-down operating system and lack of a Windows graphical user interface (it uses a simpler "dashboard" instead). The major performance enhancement comes from taking a couple steps backward in OS development history: X-box gives up preemptive multitasking and protected mode. All tasks run in Ring 0, which makes for great speed and marvelous crashability. So no Dynamic Linked Libraries for X-Box, which can't afford the complexity.

What we'll be able to do with the box is what fascinates me. It certainly won't run Windows applications, though there is nothing that would keep developers — or Microsoft — from writing an X-Box browser that could be the front end to Redmond's upcoming line of web-enabled applications. The X-Box will play music CDs and DVD movies — two capabilities that Sony has been very coy about adding to the PlayStation 2. Of course Sony has CD- and DVD-player sales that can be hurt by adding these capabilities to the PlayStation, while Microsoft has nothing to lose. This is typical of Microsoft's in-your-face style of marketing. Redmond wants to put Sony in the uncomfortable position of having to add CD and DVD applications to its box or be at a disadvantage when it comes to specifications.

The Microsoft approach is actually very similar to that of VM Labs and its Nuon machines I wrote about earlier this year. The Nuon boxes are DVD players that can also play video games or act as Web browses. Microsoft has taken a similar all-in-one approach.

The consensus of my friends in the game business is that Microsoft is trying too hard here. The company wants to intimidate game console makers, thin client makers, and DVD makers all at the same time with the probable result that none of them will be very worried. Nuon is essentially a DVD player — a better DVD player than the X-Box will be — that has added the capability to run a specific type of video game. Nuon isn't aimed at Sony's heart, but X-Box is. X-Box purports to compete directly with PlayStation 2 and — in typical Microsoft fashion — will claim superior performance. But I doubt that X-Box will deliver on that claim.

Of course, only time will tell. And the major uncertainty left is in the games, themselves. If Microsoft can convince developers to deliver some kick-ass games that appear first on the X-Box, well then it might have a chance after all.

Last week's column on planned FBI e-mail tampering at the 2002 Utah Olympics produced a collective yawn from readers. Most of you either assumed this sort of eavesdropping was already normal (it isn't), didn't care, or my skillful attempt to present the facts in a way that didn't create panic in the streets slipped it by you undetected. So be it, but I am still disturbed at the idea that anyone who sends e-mail from an Olympic kiosk will have that e-mail read and the password stored for future snooping.

Forgetting the Olympics, could a similar e-mail snooping operation take place at your place of business? Remember that the U.S. courts have already decided that workers have no right to e-mail privacy, so if your boss decides to snoop, he or she has a legal right to do so. But can they?

They certainly can and some may already do so. The mechanism of choice is anti-virus software. If your outfit has an ongoing effort to scan all e-mail — even Web-based e-mails services like Hotmail — for viruses, what's actually happening is your proxy intercepts and reads all the mail data for virus signatures. Adding to the virus signature database a list of words or phrases to look for (like the boss' or the company's name or the names of any confidential projects) is really a no-brainer. All you have to do is see how long it takes the anti-virus companies to prepare and distribute a signature update — about three hours. So if you are going to criticize the boss, I'd suggest avoiding the company LAN. Even better, use a handheld device with built-in encryption like a Palm VII.

Remember, all politics is local.

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