The upcoming free Microsoft console

This article is totally speculative. It is about something that Microsoft could do, should do and may well be doing. It is not about the Xbox 360 or the upcoming Xbox 720 (Phoenix?). It is about a totally new machine. A totally new sort of machine.

Firstly it is necessary to understand the concept of server based gaming. We have it already with MMOs and casual gaming on PC. With these your computer does very little work other than running the display, reading your control inputs and talking down the internet. The game itself is running in a big computer remotely sited with many hundreds or many thousands of people playing the game at the same time.

Server based gaming has grown very rapidly in the last few years, far faster than console based gaming. It offers many advantages and few disadvantages. Typically the gaming is paid for with a monthly subscription and by advertising.

The new Microsoft console will be a set top box for server based gaming. Because it will be doing so little work it will be very simple and very cheap to make. So cheap that they will be able to give it away when you take out a subscription for the service. Or charge say $50 for it. Alternatively they may add bells and whistles such as a gesture interface and go very slightly upmarket.

To maximise the experience and mimise bandwidth requirements they will use digital compression technology between the server and the home, with a hardware decoder in the box to uncompress the incoming data.

Microsoft don’t even have to make the box themselves, they can license it out to lots of other people to make. So it could be built into into decoder and video recorder boxes as another function. There could even be no box at all with the electronics incorporated cheaply into the television itself.

And what will you get for your subscription? Firstly a service very much like Live but with server based games. These will vary from noughts and crosses to complex MMOs. And there will be lots of social networking capabilities. And they can add all sorts of other functionality such as home shopping. In fact there is no limit to the possibilities.

Now it doesn’t have to be Microsoft bringing us this. It could be Sony or Nintendo. It could be Samsung or Phillips. It could even be Google. But Microsoft seem to have the most potential and resources to carry this through. And it really fits well with their business model.


  1. I think Sony would atleast wish they were working towards this kind of a scenario. They’ve tried to make this notion of an integrated home entertainment experience central to the PlayStation brand and featured it heavily at E3.

    Living room space is a premium and having this kind of small, simple technology that could easily be fitted into TV’s, Set Top Boxes, DVD (Blu-Ray) players or a small stand alone unit would be an ideal scenario for them.

  2. At some point this model seems inevitable to me.

    I think the most exciting possibility that Bruce fails to mention is that with remote 3D rendering, manufacturers can easily increase the quality of every consumer’s experience, just by adding more hardware to the render farm.

    Imagine turning on your Wii one day to find that it now generated images in 1080p and had all the incredible graphical effects you see in 360 and PS3 games.

    Some people say this is impossible due to bandwidth / latency. Here is an interesting YouTube video showing powerful 3D rendering being delivered via the network (i.e. the 3D is being calculated on a server farm elsewhere).

    The future is always closer than you think, it’s just that most people are looking out for the wrong thing!

  3. Yeah I don’t really see the point to this at all yet……..Maybe the avatar thing hasn’t caught on, though it seems to work great for games like unreal tournament…

    I don’t think a set top box is viable yet….I would rather play my games like armored core, grand theft auto, silent hill etc. then sit there and watch them in a set top box. I suppose it might work for online addicts.

    Really needs alot more testing….could be a good complement to the 360. Then again, I love going into dungeon crawlers ala too human and just co-oping for the hell of it & start nailing down everything…..

  4. Bruce, it seems to me that it is just a matter of when, not if, this will happen. Instead of a set-top box, it could be a commoditized console, but certainly all the players, including Microsoft and Sony are moving in this direction already. I agree that Microsoft has some core skills in this arena which could give them an early leg up. But I suspect that the competition will be intense and that some new players will greatly affect the outcome.

  5. That will be nice to see that Phoenix ( i don’t understand why they choose this name at all )


  6. The “box” you speak CAN be created, but it would be mediocre at best. If they can manage to give it away for free, it will not have the power needed to stream and play todays games. Which means you will be left with tetris, or Uno, something that my cable box does already for free, in channel 125.

    Furthermore, if there is any company that DOES have what it would require for this to work, it wouldn’t be Microsoft (who is a Software-based company), it would be Sony who is a hardware-based company and already have all those lines of Television sets and DVD players at their disposal to integrate the technology as they see fit.

  7. It doesn’t have to be free as long it just works properly!
    And not fixing problems 2 years after…

    And I guess they won’t need a BR player they will just use the faster internet in a few years to watch movies and get game assets from the internet.

    but it will take a little time for all the new things to show up

  8. Yea this is nothing new… but they are expanding it. Basically the game runs on a server… and the video gets sent back to you in a real-time stream.

    It won’t work unless you have high bandwidth. Think of it as remote desktoping into a gaming machine to play games over the network. The local controls are sent to the server system, executed, and the resulting video is sent back.

    The bad side is lag = missed controls

  9. I think the broadband infrastructure in the UK is the biggest obstacle facing this kind of model. In the US and many parts of Europe, upstream bandwidth is much, much higher than that typically offered here. I know SDSL is a bit much to hope for, but when many subscribers with high speed downstream connections have a microscopically small upstream bandwidth, server-based gaming via a STB is going to suffer.

  10. Companies are already doing this, Virgin has been working on a model for this kind of delivery in Europe and there are other companies working on the same tech. Problem is the graphical fidelity will never be anywhere close to what a complete next gen home console will be. The games that are being delivered now are older games like Need for speed Underground, stuff like that. (and the don’t have big libraries either, the more games they have the more servers they need to run) Lots of hotels have been doing this for years (the ones who have fake n64 controllers plugged into the TVs)

    To deliver a 16 player game of halo 3, their server’s 3d renderer would have to be the equivalent of 16 xbox 360’s. Maybe they could get away with fewer processors that are faster, but when comes down to it they still have to render 16 screens… thats one massive server!.

    Lets say its possible… and 1 server is reserved per Halo 3 match… how many people play halo 3 nightly? Microsoft would have to have acres if not miles of servers set up just to run Halo 3.

    What if its a game people don’t play anymore, does Microsoft keep the server up just for the couple thousand of people that play it regularly? No. Once a game was not being played anymore, they would have to drop it from their library, shut those servers down.

    I’m not saying this won’t happen, companies are already making it happen. But it will never be anywhere close to the graphical fidelity you could get if you went to the store and bought the newest next gen console. The home console is not going to die.

  11. Interesting concept which might be realised later. Another problem this would prose is the fact that a lot of countries aside from the US and Canada are still working with ten year old internet quality. Imagine all companies decide to do this, you’d be left with entire nations that could not take part as well as them not having a console with current games to play themselves.

    The challenges this would create are length, but not impossible. All in all however, I believe this is a little idealistic in the end. I kinda like owning my game libraries as well.

    Enough said from me however 😉


  12. this is just stupid , its technically impossible “for now” to do it for tens of MILLIONS of gamers!
    Maybe in the future, but that will make us slaves!

  13. Runescape already does this with millions of gamers. So it is proven to be possible. Even without hardware compression. And even without the far greater bandwidth that will be available in the future.

  14. So MS will have two pay the same amount of money for the expensive hardware (now at there servers and not at the client machine) plus even more hardware for compression and a lot of bandwidth (expensive) and the cost for maintaining this highest end servers and the bills for electricity (which is actually quite high for server systems). It does not sound like they are getting back more money then with average consoles. Plus decrompression of the whole graphic sound etc. in real time does require GOOD hardware at the users machine side. 😉

    I don’t think it’ll ever exist…

  15. This article is so wrong, in so many ways, I don’t know where to start.

    Please talk to a technical person about this sometime so you can correct your misconceptions!

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