Microsoft may be losing the console war against PlayStation 4, but it has big plans. During the recent Xbox Spring Showcase, Xbox chief Phil Spencer dropped a bombshell about the future of Xbox One. He said Microsoft is interested in offering hardware upgrades for the Xbox One that could bring about the end of console generations, at least for the Xbox platform.
Exactly how this would work is unclear, but Spencer drew comparisons to the PC ecosystem. According to Polygon, Spencer said, “We see on other platforms, whether it be mobile or PC, that you get a continuous innovation that you rarely see on console. Consoles lock the hardware and the software platforms together at the beginning of the generation. Then you ride the generation out for seven or so years, while other ecosystems are getting better, faster, stronger. And then you wait for the next big step function.”
Going forward, the idea is that Xbox One owners will be able to purchase hardware upgrades that would keep the power of their consoles in line with other new technologies like PCs and smartphones, which customers can upgrade or replace as the technology improves. Microsoft isn’t ready to say more just yet, so it’s unclear if these hardware upgrades will require customers to buy new versions of the Xbox One console, or if they would be able to install, say, a better graphics processor themselves.
Which brings us to the potential problems with the plan. One of the chief advantages consoles have over PCs is their ease of use. When you buy an Xbox One game, you know it will work on your Xbox One console without needing to download drivers or tweak settings like you might have to do on a PC. If some Xbox One owners had upgraded hardware while others just had the original system, that could segment the audience. If owners would have to install hardware upgrades themselves, that would add a layer of complexity that console owners have never had to deal with before.
Still, even though the Xbox One is only two years old, it’s already showing its age when compared to newer PCs. Fast forward a few years to the end of the console generation, and the Xbox One will look even more dated.
This change is part of Microsoft’s continuing effort to tie the Xbox One together with Windows 10, and make it function more like a PC. Xbox One will be able to run Universal Windows Applications, so games should eventually work both on Windows 10 and Xbox One, creating a unified platform.
That kind of a setup has several advantages, including cross-buy, cross-platform multiplayer, and even the preservation of older games. On PC, you can still play games made many years ago, because the basic architecture of the system has remained the same. On consoles, the technology tends to change so much between generations that backward compatibility is lost over time. Going forward, Spencer says he’d like Xbox players to be able to maintain access to their older games even on newer hardware. Which begs the question of when, if ever, an entirely new Xbox console will come out.
It all sounds great, but without more information it’s hard to envision exactly how it will play out. How many upgraded versions of Xbox One will come out during this console generation? Will the benefits on the screen be worth the price of the hardware upgrades?
However it shakes out, it’s a bold new vision for how a console could work, and it’s great to see Microsoft blazing a new path. From the look of it, this generation of console gaming is about to become a lot more interesting.