It's Got Game (But Microsoft Hopes for More)

Playing Xbox
Steven Brown, a senior at Woodrow Wilson High School, takes Microsoft's Xbox 360 on a test drive. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Mike Musgrove and Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Microsoft's Xbox 360, which started selling early this morning, is a video game system with ambitions to be far more. It can show DVDs, play music, even host video conference calls. The idea is to unify today's digital living room into one box that looks good enough to display on a coffee table.

With Americans switching to high-speed Internet access, TV networks offering popular shows for download and people going online to make free phone calls, technology is blurring the lines between various media and how consumers use them.

The race is on to create an electronic Swiss army knife to take advantage of it all. The leading products so far tend to be portable devices -- mobile "smart phones" that can make calls, take pictures and send e-mail, and digital music players such as Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod, which can now play videos.

Sony Corp. will market its own home media center next year when it introduces the PlayStation 3. Until then, Microsoft will try to exploit its head start in American living rooms. Company plans to hype the new console include a week's worth of game-related programming on MTV and a two-day party in the Mojave Desert.

"We're trying to lead the consumer into the future," J Allard, Microsoft's vice president and chief Xbox guy, said in a telephone interview. Microsoft chief executive Steven A. Ballmer has called the project "one of the most ambitious things our company has ever set out to do."

Microsoft's vision has skeptics. Paul Saffo, director of Institute for the Future, a Silicon Valley think tank, said the Xbox 360's non-gaming features "make nice ad copy" but doubts that owners will use all the extras. It remains, he said, a video game machine.

"Maybe it helps gullible parents get more enthusiastic about buying an Xbox if they think it's a media center, too," Saffo said. But "the fortune of the Xbox rises and falls on the games."

The original Xbox, which came out in 2001, had some extra features, such as playing DVDs and music. But those were add-ons designed to entertain players between marathon sessions of games like Microsoft's hit Halo series.

The new, more powerful machine -- which comes in two packages, priced at $300 and $400 -- puts such features front and center, a bet that times have changed. Only 10 percent of original Xbox owners signed up to play online games with the consoles, but Microsoft predicts that about half of Xbox 360 owners will plug their machine into the Internet.

Broadband subscribers with an Xbox 360 in their homes will have options for free or for-pay access to Microsoft's Xbox Live Marketplace, where they will be able to download movie trailers, arcade games and demos of the next cutting-edge titles. A new online tournament system designed by Microsoft is designed to generally keep heavy gamers and casual gamers in separate online realms, so that mainstream players aren't intimidated by online matches.

The machine also can host video conference calls online and trade files with other computers in the home. Xbox 360 also is designed to exploit the dramatic resolution of high-definition television, and industry watchers are hoping it can spur sales of HDTVs.

"What we're doing is converging these different forms of entertainment," Allard said. "It's really a vision of taking consumers to a future world of digital entertainment."

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