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They're consoles, Jim, but not as we know them

There's always speculation about what the next-gen consoles are going to pull out of the hat — but can the core hardware weather the coming storm?

There's always speculation about what the next-gen consoles are going to pull out of the hat — but can the core hardware weather the coming storm?

(Credit: Tai Chiem)

A few weeks ago, when the Xbox road map leaked, it launched a flurry of speculation about the next generation of gaming consoles.

The Xbox 360 has been on the market for six and a half years now (since November 2005), and the PlayStation 3 and the Wii have been out for five and a half years (since November 2006). The original Xbox was launched in February 2001, four and a half years prior to the current console; the PlayStation 2 in 2000 (around six years) and the GameCube in 2001 (five years).

It's starting to feel overdue, but while some gamers are wondering why they're still using hardware five years old, I think it's kind of great that the current gen has lasted so long.

In the intervening time, we've seen the Guitar Hero and Rock Band kits launched; motion controllers for both the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 hit the market; and those two consoles shuffle to rebrand themselves as home-entertainment boxes, with movies, music and pay TV.

But are consoles as we know them still viable? Obviously, the hardware can always be upgraded; current consoles are upscaling some games to 1080p to cope with underpowered processors — never mind the lack of anti-aliasing and advanced shading — but as a box that just plays games, it's reaching the end of the road.

Perhaps Microsoft feels the same way. The Xbox road map is full of peripherals — the Kinect V2, AR Kinect glasses (Fortaleza), a phone.

Additionally, it pays close attention to connectivity and services: a Blu-Ray drive, USB 3.0, DVR integrations, dual-band Wi-Fi, paid TV distribution support and an app store for the Fortaleza glasses.

This seems to indicate one thing: Microsoft feels that the future of the console is as a hub for a network of peripherals, services, connectivity and home entertainment.

Sony's acquisition of Gaikai last week was also very interesting news. With cloud-hosted game servers, the possibility is there to dispense with the console altogether. Imagine streaming games via a TV set, without the additional clutter in the living room.

This has quite a few implications — not the least of which is that new-gen consoles could possibly not even be a thing anymore, since upgrades could occur on Sony's end; and, with the elimination of the need for a powerful piece of hardware, gaming could get a lot less expensive.

And then we have Nintendo, which, of all the console makers, is driving the most innovation. Sure, it's had some duds — but its willingness to put itself on the line to test out new ways to interact with games has pushed the others to aspire to the same heights.

Now it's getting geared up to launch the Wii U — a cross between a console and a touchscreen device, which doesn't push the envelope as far as hardware specs are concerned, but rather, like the Wii, with its controller.

But Nintendo is flagging — not least because of its unwillingness to expand its IP onto other platforms, and to expand its ecosystem to integrate home entertainment. While Microsoft and Sony are expanding into apps, TV, movies and other services, Nintendo wants to exist in microcosm — and it's suffering for it.

Then there's the new sector, surging ahead and scuttling everyone's plans: mobile gaming, a realm that offers vast scope for creativity, and whose ubiquity is pushing handheld consoles into the background.

The humble console would have to pull out some pretty big moves to compete on its own; but Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are moving increasingly away from that single-core function into a brave new world of accessories, apps, music and movies, with an end goal of "everywhere, all the time"; that is, all content is available to everyone, always, covering an ecosystem of consoles, phones, computers, TVs. Buckle your seatbelts: this ride is going to be wild.