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The Next Xbox: Why it could make consoles truly mass-market

Outperforming Sony is a major goal but winning the Smart TV race will be priority, writes Rob Crossley

Sometimes I get so caught up in the day-to-day happenings that I forget how distinctly medium-sized the games industry is.

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Artist's impression of the Next Xbox

We're entranced by so much razzmatazz and so many interesting developments that one tends to forget this isn't exactly the film or music business, or the smartphone and tablet market, or the PC and TV industries. Games are doing well - really well - but it's not exactly a huge deal yet.

Video games are, in truth, serving a welterweight-sized audience who pay significant sums of money to keep everything going. Yes, the industry can puff its chest and claim that it made more cash than Cinema tickets have, or spin the figures however it wants, but clearly it hasn't yet achieved that long-term ambition of mass-market relevance.

But as we approach a new generation of home consoles, more and more I look at Microsoft as the company that might get us there.

Last night, Microsoft confirmed it would reveal its next generation Xbox at a press conference on May 21.

Xbox's executive circle, no doubt briefed to the eyeballs, yesterday gave away very little aside from a date, location and hashtag. But there was one tiny embellishment from Xbox Live director of programming, Larry Hryb, that I found quite telling:

"We'll mark the beginning of a new generation of games, TV and entertainment".

Over the past three years, the Xbox 360 has fallen well behind Sony in terms of new and exclusive high quality games. What's really surprised me is the few complaints about this.

I think most people are happy because Microsoft's intention since 2010 has been to evolve its console into an ultimate all-in-one entertainment device, and it's done a commendable job.

The Xbox team know you love Breaking Bad, and that you watch sport religiously, and you've seen Drive about ten times now, so why bother with another batch of triple-A games when it could instead satisfy your multimedia demands?

It was recently revealed that the amount of time the average US gamer spends using the 360's entertainment apps now surpasses time spent playing games over Xbox Live. In fact, app usage has more than doubled in the past year, contributing to a global 30 per cent increase in the total hours spent on Xbox Live.

This data, along with Hryb's comment, is an enlightening foretoken to the sort of path the Next Xbox will take.

A recent scoop by The Verge claimed that TV will be a major focus of the next Xbox. It's said that the system can read a cable box signal via HDMI, and that the Xbox's own user interface will be overlayed on the TV, meaning that switching between multimedia and games will be seamless.

Whether or not the details are accurate, the idea is genuine and effective: Ahead of a new wave of Smart TVs, Microsoft wants to offer a box that can modernise any HDTV into a net-connected device.

This is about selling an Xbox to mum and dad. Showing them that you can watch Netflix and record media and stream music and visit websites without leaving the couch, and you can do it all before Tim Cook even reveals the Apple TV.

The key selling point is no longer "it plays games", but "it does everything".

I'm unreservedly excited for the next generation because Microsoft and Sony will be taking markedly different approaches. Both will play to their strengths: Sony has a global fleet of supremely talented first-party developers and will provide the best triple-A games on the market.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has a market-leading online infrastructure upon which it will expand its ambitions to interactive smart TV.

Whoever wins will define the direction the industry will go in. If it's Sony, games will be better and bolder than ever. If it's Microsoft, consoles will finally be a really big deal.

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