Gaming battle revs up; will Microsoft usurp Apple’s cool?

Microsoft's SmartGlass could change living rooms around the world

Michael Fitzgerald By Michael Fitzgerald

Apple is the tech story of the day, but are its days numbered, here in the U.S. and elsewhere? That’s the story being spun by some after the E3 show, the big gaming expo that took place in Los Angeles last week.

Numbered days stand as a fact of life in high technology, where dominant firms either reinvent themselves regularly or get bypassed seemingly overnight. Consumer tech in particular gets shaped by markets, and we found commenters in Australia and India had things to say about video games there.

Marc Whitten, the head of Xbox Live, holds an XBox SmartGlass wireless tablet controller at E3 in Los Angeles, California on June 4th, 2012. (Reuters/Fred Prouser)

At last week’s E3 show, Microsoft introduced SmartGlass, a wireless tablet that lets you link your Xbox gaming console (and the TV screen it’s attached to) with other devices like computers and cell phones, reportedly including Apple’s products (though we’ll have to see what makes it into the product when it debuts this fall).

Because SmartGlass involves television (a massive medium), gaming (one of the world’s most popular forms of entertainment), and Microsoft (the world’s dominant maker of computer software), SmartGlass could matter hugely everywhere.

As India’s Deccan Chronicle noted, “with the addition of SmartGlass, the Xbox 360 pretty much converts your standard TV into a ‘Smart’ one, giving you control over your entertainment options, your Live apps, gaming extensibility and full web browsing.”

There you have it: Microsoft’s version of the universal remote. From Australia, in “The Battle for the Lounge Room,” The Age’s technology columnist George Wright engages in a useful discussion of what SmartGlass does to Microsoft’s “three screen strategy.” The three screens are TV, PC and mobile, all of which command our attention, and thus matter to corporations of all sorts. Mobile, the “second screen” (because it’s a second place for watching TV or playing games), fundamentally affects the time we spend on the other two screens. Call it a screen splitter. But it’s not a screen killer. As Wright says, our attention is fragmenting into multiple screens, and that means “the opportunity to be on all devices is a holy grail for media and marketing types.”

Wright does not trumpet SmartGlass as a likely winner. SmartGlass isn’t even a shipping product, and it has a rival, the Nintendo U, which was also announced at E3 and given a big vote of confidence by French video game giant UbiSoft. Wright says we are in the early stages of living room devices. Actually, nearly 20 years ago, when I was a young reporter, we were in the early stages of digital entertainment in the living room. We’ve advanced a great deal since that. Perhaps that was primeval times, and now we’re in medieval ones.

Over at TheStreet.com, columnist Rocco Pendola thinks we’re in post-modern times, or at least post-Apple times. Apple has so far failed to deliver a living room experience consumers want to buy, at least in the numbers they buy other Apple products. The Xbox dominates gaming and Microsoft retains huge market share around the world in desktop operating systems. Pendola thinks SmartGlass puts Microsoft in a position to build on those and blunt Apple’s demand. “It builds the brand and it helps infringe, at least a little bit, on Apple’s ‘cool,’” he writes.

Perhaps not. The BBC reported this zinger from South Park creator Trey Parker:

“How many times have you been watching an episode of South Park and thought I’d like to be able to watch this on my television while hooked into my mobile device which is being controlled by my tablet device which is hooked into my oven all while sitting in the refrigerator,” he joked.

Meanwhile, this video by Reuters questions whether the gaming industry itself is on the wane.

Let’s see….Apple is in trouble, Microsoft is back into world domination mode, Microsoft is stupid, video gaming is dead.

If you’re betting that nobody really knows what’s going to happen, you’re right. One thing’s clear: we’re not going to be spending less time on our screens, whatever they are.