As the next generation of console systems looms, and the industry devours any scraps of gossip about the next Xbox or PlayStation, I'm starting to wonder if Microsoft and Sony are paying enough attention to Apple – and the threat it presents to their living room dominance.
While Steve Jobs never had a big interest in the gaming world, the app store quickly made the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch portable gaming powerhouses – albeit using a vastly different model than Nintendo and Sony. These days, Tim Cook is running the show – and he's not an executive who's going to ignore a $60 billion-plus industry.
The two together could be a potent combination (with the addition of the current standalone AppleTV device being another weapon in the company's arsenal). The mainstream world has already embraced apps – and core gamers are playing them more often as well (though certainly haven't given up on traditional titles).
A controller, while it tends to fall outside of Apple's hardware wheelhouse, could give those core gamers a reason to take a step away from their consoles.
Whether that controller comes from Apple or a third party building off of the company's hardware, the real key to Apple's entree into gaming could be AirPlay. Gaming on your TV via the iPad using AirPlay is a seamless experience. It looks good. There are no latency issues (or, if there are, it's not something most players would notice). And while AirPlay might not be ideal for titles like Angry Birds Space, it seems just one killer app away from transforming Apple into a legitimate threat to the industry.
And if that game controller is, in fact, being made, it will only hasten the transformation.
Apple's gaming efforts have already won the company the support of most major publishers. While EA and Take-Two certainly make the bulk of their income from traditional console games at present, they're taking steps to protect against a broader shift to Apple-centric gaming by expanding their mobile divisions and ensuring major franchises have equal exposure on iDevices and consoles. (Let's face it, the lower development costs don't hurt either, especially with the hike that comes with a new generation of consoles.)
Meanwhile, last month, Epic Games threw its considerable weight behind the company, when president Mike Capps, speaking at an Apple press event unveiling the new iPad, declared: "This new device has more memory and higher screen resolution than an Xbox 360 or PS3."
Apple's maneuvering occurs as Microsoft and Sony prepare to do battle with their next generation of home consoles. And if the rumor mill is right, the new machines will be less about hardware and more about services. That's an area Apple specializes in.
Even more troubling: Judging by media reports and what I've heard from developers who have been briefed on the systems, there's nothing really revolutionary-sounding about either machine to date. And the strict DRM measures Sony and Microsoft apparently plan to take with the new machines are likely to irk gamers.
While alarmist cries that both systems will make used games unplayable are ridiculous, players are likely going to have to pay a fee to activate a used game on their system – similar to EA's widely copied "Project $10" initiative (though it will likely extend to both single- and multiplayer elements of the game).
That's creating a lot of ill will towards the companies now among players. Apple, meanwhile, is seeing off the charts satisfaction. A study released Monday from ChangeWave Research finds that 98 percent of owners of the new iPad are satisfied (with 82 percent saying they were "very satisfied").
Sales seem to be ahead of expectations as well, with J.P. Morgan predicting first-quarter iPhone sales of 31.1 million and iPad sales of 13.8 million. (We'll learn the actual numbers on April 24 during the company's earnings call.)
Of course, this is hardly an all or nothing situation. An Apple entry into the living room gaming space won't sound a death knell for consoles, but it could weaken them.
The good news is home consoles have some advantages in this fight. First, they've got a long history in this business – and know the audience better than anyone at Apple. That can help them keep the core gamers satisfied as they wage war for the mainstream.
Perhaps more importantly, though, is Apple's current lack of a visionary as focused as Steve Jobs was. His drive for perfection pushed the company to its current spot in the consumer electronics field, but keeping that magic touch will be increasingly more difficult in the years to come.