Microsoft has a new gaming handheld...and it's the iPad

And a Windows tablet. And an iPhone. And an Android phone. How Microsoft's skirting the handheld gaming race for something different -- and bolder.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
2 min read
James Martin/CNET

LOS ANGELES--You can forget about your dreams of an Xbox 360 Portable. That's so 2006. No, at this year's E3, Microsoft did something much more surprising: instead of getting proprietary, it hopped on everyone else's platform instead.

Xbox SmartGlass was the touted application, service, technology -- whatever you want to call it -- that stood for a new product at Microsoft's E3 press conference this morning in Los Angeles. It needed some jolt of new produce excitement, arguably, and SmartGlass can stand in as this year's "what is that?" buzzword, a second-screen concept for turning seemingly any smartphone or tablet into an additional display when watching movies, playing games, or browsing online.

It's very unclear what exactly SmartGlass is, or what it will do, other than what was demoed. However, it amounts to Microsoft's closest thing to a portable gaming experience. And maybe that's a wise move, as colleague Roger Cheng noted to me in an e-mail as I walked back from Microsoft's presser, wondering what to make of it all.

Chasing hardware is risky. The last gaming handheld to try, the PlayStation Vita, hasn't exactly soared. Nintendo's faced big problems with the Nintendo 3DS before partially righting its ship, but the 3DS still pales in comparison to the height of the Nintendo DS' popularity.

Apple has had a huge impact on mobile gaming. It has. You can't deny it. Neither does Microsoft, apparently. Microsoft has seemingly chosen to acknowledge something bold: you're never going to get the iPads, iPhones, and Android devices out of people's homes. So, if you can't beat them, join them.

Doing that may not be quite so simple. Apple's approved Microsoft's Xbox Live iOS apps before, but who knows what will happen when SmartGlass seems to offer something that could threaten Apple's future Apple TV ecosystem. Then again, there are plenty of peripheral apps in the App Store already, and maybe SmartGlass is one of them.

I'm a little skeptical. I'm reminded of OnLive and its long-promised streaming-games iPad app. It still hasn't been released, despite reportedly being ready to go according to OnLive. Could Apple do that to Microsoft? That's the danger of hitching your mobile dreams to someone else's platform, although I applaud the democratic nature of it all.

SmartGlass may never be intended to leave your home, much like the Wii U and its secondary tablet screen. In that sense, this might be the admission that mobile gaming, as we knew it, has changed. We're in an app universe now, whether or not Nintendo or Sony choose to fully acknowledge it. Whether or not SmartGlass ever fulfills its potential, Microsoft may be the most logical of the Big Three at this year's E3.