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2013: The year of the microconsole?
2013: The year of the microconsole?
January 8, 2013 | By Tadhg Kelly

January 8, 2013 | By Tadhg Kelly
Comments
    38 comments
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing



In a piece originally posted on the What Games Are blog, and reprinted in full with his permission, UK-based game designer and Gamasutra contributor Tadhg Kelly examines the current "microconsole" boom.

The year is barely a week old, and yet already something momentous has happened. While many of us are expecting it to be the year when Microsoft and Sony bring out new machines and try to get their platform stories moving toward perihelion, it seems that other companies were thinking differently. We already knew about the Ouya, of course, and the rumours about Valve making a dedicated machine for Steam have been circling for a while.

However this week it has surfaced, under the codename Piston. In additon Nvidia announced a clamshell PS Vita-alike named Shield, which may be both a peripheral and a game machine in its own right. And we should not forget about Gamestick, a USB-sized console from Playjam that has already been funded on Kickstarter.

2013 may not turn out to be the year of the console after all. It might be the year of the microconsole.

What's a Microconsole?

"Microconsole" is a term that I'm using to describe a new brace of low-cost, accessible and physically small game console. It's derived from the term "microcomputer". In case you're too young to remember them, microcomputers were cheap, easy-to-develop-for computers on which inexpensive games were sold. They had names like the BBC Micro, the Commodore 64, the Sinclair Spectrum and the Amiga (sort of) and were largely the reason why the "bedroom coder" came into being. They were also particularly popular in Britain, which is why so many old school legends of game development come from these tiny islands.

Microconsoles are very similar to microcomputers in many respects. For one thing, they are trying to make console gaming cheap and fun by being quite bare-bones in their offering. An Ouya is not really promising to be a high-powered media box, just a games machine selling games at app-prices that work on your TV. Microconsoles are also promising to be connected, and to be cheap and easy for developing games. While the main console providers pursue expensive and complicated (and largely failing) strategies to win the living room, microconsoles seem to want to get ahold of enthusiasts first and just give them what they want.

Why Now?

Many indie gamers and developers just want to make games and not have to deal with all of the expense and cruft of working with a Microsoft. They look at what's happened on mobile and PC in the last five years and ask why must joypad-plus-TV be treated as a special case? It shouldn't really, as all a console is is a simplified computer whose job is to interpret joypad input and render results on a screen. However it has been, largely because consoles have been sold on tribal stories (a.k.a. fanboyism), with the intent of one format to attain the status of hegemony.

Many new gaming machines have been launched by companies before on the basis of trying to storm the console fortress. There was the CD-i, the CD32, the 3DO, the Dreamcast and many many more. What makes this new brace of machines worthy of a new name and a "year of declaration?

One answer is connectivity. While consoles have had a digital distribution wing since 2002, they've struggled to own it in the way that apps and games-as-a-service have. There are few free-to-play console games, and their indie channels are less about enabling developers and more about having a couple of show-horses like Journey to prove that they have street cred. In an age when other platforms are open to anyone to make games, and the world has gone app-happy, consoles remain stuffy, overly managed and laden down with heavy cert processes that make them uneconomical.



All of the microconsoles, on the other hand, promise to be open, available, connected and easy to work with. All will try to make distribution a cinch. Whether we're talking Valve through Steam or Ouya through some form of Android store, all are attempting to make it as seamless as possible both for developer and user. So you could easily see a day when a fourteen year old kid has his Gamestick hooked up to his cheap laptop and is using it as a dev unit with Android and Unity to make and sell games. The bedroom coder reborn.

A second answer is that the technology barriers are dropping. While a high-end PC or console is still where cutting edge graphics are to be found, smarter indies have been chasing them for a while. Titles like The Walking Dead, Dear Esther, Bastion, Hotline Miami or Journey all show distinctive style (and in some cases great polish), and this sense of look is increasingly more important than power. While it's unlikely that Far Cry 3 would ever appear on a microconsole, the larger question is whether that really matters.

The third is cost, both on hardware and distribution. When the Ouya was first announced there was a lot of debate about the cost-per-unit of the machine and how well it could fulfil its promise to be cheap. It seems that others have concluded that producing a low-to-medium power microconsole is doable though, which is why there is more than one such project in the works. We're living in an age where the perceptible differences of performance hardware have largely given way to lower costs (and this is why Raspberry Pis can exist), so it's not a great stretch to suggest that that trend can continue.

Questions over retail partnerships for microconsoles also hang in the air, and whether they can achieve mass traction quickly. My feeling is that this is the wrong question though. Mass traction is a factor that consoles need because of the cost of running the whole business, developing games, producing disks and research on new hardware. Microconsoles are more likely to follow similar paths to microcomputers or mini hardware like the Roku, appealing to passionate enthusiasts first and then trying to cross the chasm later.

Microconsoles are also much more likely to have regular hardware updates (possibly annually) like mobile phones rather than the 5-7 year cycles of consoles. This gives them much greater ability to iterate and innovate, and then sell new machine through Amazon etc. Much as Kindle, Samsung and Apple have done, microconsoles could potentially be sold and resold to the same customers every year or two, and at prices low enough to avoid making those purchases seem odious.

A fourth answer is focus. While it seems to make sense to Microsoft and Sony, and to a lesser extent Nintendo, to transform their game machines into multimedia powerhouses, their reasoning is based on magical thinking. They continue to believe that there's a greater market out there for an entertainment box (yet sales of both Xbox 360 and PS3 would indicate that there isn't). And while Microsoft is fond of touting a statistic that the Xbox 360 is used more for video than games, I personally think that that number is soft (much as the PS2 being used to play DVDs was).

The big console platform stories are a mess. The story they need to be telling is "getting back to games" but neither M nor S are ready to believe that yet. Meanwhile Nintendo is busy being Nintendo, which is in itself a double-edged sword. This means the microconsoles have a golden opportunity to occupy a space which the big consoles have forgotten (it's about the games, stupid), and by making small lean machines that promise to do just that, they have a shot.

But Will It Work?

For big budget game makers used to high-cost/high-return, microconsoles are likely to prove a wild and uncertain place. However for indies used to doing everything themselves, they should be very attractive.

Historically speaking, a passionate development community is essential to a console's success. As each grows, and tools like Unity catch up to make cross-compiling easy, it's very likely that we'll see vibrant development scenes emerge around one or more microconsole. At first this might look somewhat like the Yaroze scene of old, but in time more professional works will arise.

What's super-interesting about three of the four microconsoles announced thus far is that they are all using Android as their base operating system (Valve being Valve and Steam being Steam, they're going the Linux route). There are also many other companies, most notably Samsung, who have deep experience in working with Android already too. This brings up the possibility of a universal game format, a kind of DVD of games - only not tied to physical disks.

If the Ouya is able to run Shield games, and the Gamestick is able to run Ouya games, that kind of thing changes the nature of consoles and makes it more basic. Rather than a fancy platform story selling a premium brand, consoles become more like the Apple TV: small boxes with controllers that serve game and app experiences without too much fuss. Cheaply.

For some that's nirvana. For others, Armageddon.

Early Impressions

I doubt that all of the contenders in the emerging microconsole race will survive. I have high hopes for Ouya on the basis that it's had the most momentum to date, the fan loyalty and the money. The fact that the company recently got its dev kits out on time and in good order is also a great sign. I also feel that Valve will make the Steam Box a success, although it may take two or three tries to get there. Unlike the other microconsoles, Valve already has a massive asset with Steam, already has some of its own very highly valued brands (Portal, Half Life, etc.) and also has a great reputation among indie developers.

I am less positive about the Gamestick. While Playjam has long experience in making games, and a good team behind it, I'm not sure that the market needs its consoles to be two inches in size. To pack good-enough hardware into a space that small is an unnecessary challenge, and if I'm being honest I think the ergonomics of the joypad need work. I also suspect that the Nvidia Shield will need a form factor overhaul. While the unit unveiled at CES is just a prototype, it looks incredibly gimmicky (essentially an Xbox 360 joypad stuck to a screen), and is also pitched more at the handheld market. In the wake of the mobile revolution that market may not meaningfully exist for anyone other than Nintendo.

But beyond that, who else could get in on the race? How about Samsung? What about Amazon? Both have strong familiarity with Android after all, and Samsung in particular has great experience with TV based hardware. Then there's Apple, and the mysterious lack of apps on Apple TV. To some it seems as though Apple could convert that machine to a microconsole overnight, and who knows how that will turn out?

At a time when it seemed like the console industry was heading toward terminal boredom, things have suddenly started to get a whole lot more interesting.


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Comments


k s
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Thanks for this great write up Tadhg, I usually disagree with you opinions but this time I'm in complete agreement.

I see Ouya as being the biggest success, the steam box surviving, I'm not so sure about Shield (even though I think it's cool), and I expect the game stick to just fail. 2013 shall prove to be most interesting year for all of us.

Tadhg Kelly
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Thanks :)

t b
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"I expect the game stick to just fail."
I don't - I think the form factor (small) is great, and I don't think they are trying to force business models onto the games like Ouya. I see a nice future of "bring your own console", you can bring your Ouya, and I'll have a gamestick, we can each have different environments, accounts, games installed, etc. and we just switch HDMI ports. Of course many of these projects will fail, but there is room for lots of successful devices.

Justin Sawchuk
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All the reactions I have seen so far for the OUYA amongst the core gamers seems to be very negative, mocking it and the indie developers probably because the console is so underpowered (but what can you except for $100). Its the same type of response I see when someone tries to put a mobile game on greenlight they are not having it. So either the OUYA is going to cater to a very different crowd or its DOA.

The reason why I think the OUYA might fail is its got no quality control I have already seen people ready to heap shovelware on it.

k s
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@Justin I think many of the "core gamer" reactions you are seeing is simply brand loyalty. Many of these people have invested a lot in their brand(s) of choice and anything new is a threat to them.

Alex Boccia
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I've got a PC so I have no need for a micro console, but they look sort of neat. I'll probably buy Valve's piston for my parents.

Jeremy Alessi
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I think a lot of us dreamt of creating our own game consoles and now the tech is accessible enough to make it a reality. It's hard to see any of these surviving because they represent a step backward. It's kind of like the indie game movement in the early 2000's. Developers (like myself) wanted to make our own games but players didn't really care initially. Now, finally, a decade later indie games are widely accepted. The only real reason is because smartphones came around though. It had nothing to do with the desire. It was more of a luck meets preparation type thing.

I don't think anything will supplant smartphones for some time. These game microconsoles are a nostalgic knee jerk to the smartphone revolution. I like them for nostalgic purposes but they might as well be the Arkeg. Cool and fun, but probably not the future.

CHASE DE LANGUILLETTE
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How is it that smartphones are the only reason indie games are widely accepted?

I think Smartphones had very little to do with the acceptance of indie games. I attribute their acceptance more to the PC, Steam, XBLA, and if you want to go back a few years, Flash games.

Jeremy Alessi
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It's not the only reason, just the major one. The others you listed were earlier and not nearly as fruitful, mostly adopting the mentality of earlier platforms (gated communities). There was certainly some success on those platforms but nothing compared with the diversity of success on smartphones.

CHASE DE LANGUILLETTE
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The App store is a gated community, and Android has done very little for the indie game scene to date (though maybe Ouya will change that).

Maybe if by indie games being accepted because of smartphones, you mean that more devs started looking at the iOS goldrush and assumed they could get a slice of that pie by going indie, then sure. I'll concede to that sea change, but publishers and big companies now have the iOS platform nearly on lockdown, so it was a pretty short-lived dream.

Talat Fakhri
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Chase- How publishers and big companies now have iOS platform on lockdown? Even to this day I see many indie games there and games which I play.

CHASE DE LANGUILLETTE
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Maybe not lockdown. Occasional indie games do bubble to the surface, but the amount of people actually finding profitability has been narrowing.

http://techcrunch.com/2012/12/04/analyst-just-25-developers-grabb
ed-50-of-app-revenues-on-u-s-app-store-google-play-last-month-ear
ning-60m-between-them/

edit: shortened url: goo.gl/Vji0X

Talat Fakhri
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Chase- Since profitability is the difference between revenue and cost , you also have to take into account low cost for small teams. Just the revenue figures don't shed much light. Big companies have to have large share of revenues, small teams don't.

A W
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Though this article is masterfully written towards the golden future of the Microconsole, many questions are going to have to be tested and answered from both a consumer and a developer standpoint. Many that I myself can not list do to the overwhelming information of things being reveal.

Lewis Pulsipher
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I have never really understood why anyone paid nearly as much for a wannabe-PC console as for a decent PC - other than fear of computers and keyboards - but I suppose there is a fanboy/cultism to it. If I were Microsoft and Sony I'd think very hard before coming out with another console, as the days of choosing only from door 1 (Nintendo), door 2 (Sony), or door 3 (Microsoft) are long, long gone. Microconsoles have the advantages, for players, of the big consoles, without the disadvantages. Quite apart from PCs and mobile platforms.

Perhaps T. Kelly isn't old enough to remember how terms were used in the late 70s and early 80s. The term microcomputer was coined to differentiate small single-user personal computers from multi-user terminal-based minicomputers such as the DEC PDP 11 (DEC having become the second-largest computer maker after IBM). (The term minicomputer itself was coined to differentiate these from mainframe computers.) The original IBM PC was a microcomputer; but over many years, the PC name gradually replaced the much longer and less snappy "microcomputer". Desktops and laptops are still microcomputers (or micros), we just don't use the term any more (preferring PC) because hardly anyone now cares about minis and mainframes, and many people don't really know these big computers exist.

All microcomputers, including IBM PCs and not limited to Sinclairs and Commodores and other more limited machines, certainly enabled the rise of the bedroom coder. I used an IBM PC to start with, and then a KayPro II. Both were "business machines" and not toys, but offered the same opportunities to learn programming.

Kevin Fishburne
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No, no, no. A PC is a desktop or laptop with Windows and a Mac is a desktop or laptop made by Apple. Didn't you see all those commercials telling us this? I don't know what all that old-man stuff is you're talking about.

If I were a billionaire I'd have someone read your post in a sixty-second spot during the Superbowl. Every year. Thanks, and here's to old men. ;)

Lewis Pulsipher
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There must be a joke in there somewhere, Kevin. "What do you call a desktop running Linux?" "Forgotten?"

Kevin Fishburne
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What's Linux? Of course I'm joking. It's just sand in my eyes every time I hear the word PC used to describe Windows, so your accurate breakdown pleased me to death. I was just making fun of everyone who now thinks PC=Windows due to the "I'm a Mac/PC" ads.

"Every PC in my house" is what I call "a desktop running Linux", btw.

Axel Cholewa
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Consoles never were wannabe-PCs. This has nothing to do with fanboyism. Consoles were dedicated gaming machines. That their technology converged with PC tech is mainly because of storage media: cartridges couldn't store the games anymore that were devoloped in the 90s.

I just played a few games on my old Super Nintendo lately, and the best thing about it is this: you choose a game, put it in, turn it on, wait for 15 seconds and start playing, on your TV. This, to me, is what consoles are about: plug and play.

Of course that's very different today, and that's a pity. This is why I bought a Wii U, cause the GamePad is an interesting and unique controller and the console is only about games. And this is also why I have high hopes for the microconsoles.

A W
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There was a time when PC gamers weren't so elitist in thinking. They use to be the middle people that bridged the gap between brand loyalty and coined the term gamer. Now suddenly many of them can't understand why people want to game on consoles when the PC is soooooo much better at it. Must be fear of keyboards, or lack of understanding what is superior and what is inferior in gaming experience. I guess there are no PC fanboys.

Svein-Gunnar Johansen
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Awesome article! I agree on the points you are trying to make, and it was also incredibly well written :)

John Woznack
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In the past, any new hardware platform has always relied on a "killer app" to fuel its acceptance. For these "micro consoles", I think one great app won't be enough. Not being tied to any large corporation will appeal to some indie developers (perhaps even to a few of the big dev shops), but I don't think that's enough either. Sure, games can serve to generate the initial interest, but, like Android, I believe it's going to require a large number and variety of high-quality useful non-game apps before any of them really gain serious acceptance.

Lewis Pulsipher
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I'm not sure there's such a thing as a killer app any more. There are so many apps. . . and as Jakob Nielsen says, the killer app on mobile was killing time, not any particular software. Will it be so different for the microconsoles, especially when most use a mobile operating system?

John Woznack
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My point is that I don't believe games alone will provide enough fuel for the wide-spread adoption of micro consoles. They obviously won't be able to compete against the big consoles in that regard. So that means they'll need to branch out into other markets in order for them to gain acceptance. Markets like:

+ Streaming video/net TV = "Open" cable TV box.
+ Email/voice mail/video mail = Today's communication without a full PC.
+ Attach a web cam & mic = The video phone TV thing we've all been waiting for.
+ Embed a web cam, mic, small display, and WiFi connect to another identical unit = Front door video doorbell, or per-room house "intercom" system, or an office "conference" cube.
+ Home security monitoring/net reporting = Inexpensive security system.
+ Add a solar panel & sensors = Dedicated outdoor weather station monitor.
+ Mic & speaker = Personal "Siri"/"iris" assistant thingy.
+ ...

Branching out with a variety of apps that do all sorts of things and then I think they might gain some serious attention. If the platform is truly open, and it's inexpensive, then I think it may attract enough apps that one of them will eventually appeal to many consumers.

Axel Cholewa
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I don't think that's necessary. These microconsoles are aimed at people who just want a gaming device. Whoever picks up an Ouya or a GameStick would neither expect nor want e-mail, video streaming or the like on their devices.

And since it runs on Android, they already have lots of games. Sure, those games are made for touch screens, but releasing an update with the option of a using controller input should not be that big a struggle for most devs.

The low prices make sure that people might pick it up that don't want the big entertainment unit but still want to play on TV, not only on their phones. So the question is, are there enough of these people to make the whole undertaking profitable? I think there are. An example would be grown ups that played on the big consoles in their youth, still want to play on TV from time to time but don't want to buy a 360 or PS3 (or, in the future, their successors).

A W
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I agree with Alex. I don't think it has to be complicated to do well. I just think it has to have an angle on enhancing the experience of something we already do. I think if the micoconsole core purpose is to deliver games, then they have to build themselves around that business model. Everything else is just icing on the cake.

Axel Cholewa
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It's Axel, but thanks for the heads up ;)

Bob Johnson
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There is no microconsole boom. There is only a microconsole announcement boom.



Talat Fakhri
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What about fragmentation? Even Android has this problem. It will be even more with so many micro-consoles. Hundreds of microconsoles fragmenting the market.iOS works only because it is so dominant.Or, am I missing something?

Bob Johnson
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I think 2013 is the year of the microconsole flop.

Everyone already has platforms that have the power to play any game on an OUYA etc.

MS can, with the snap of Balmer's fingers, drop all required testing of patches and games on Xbox Live Arcade. MS can repackage the 360 without the disc drive, reduce the form factor as smaller silicon processes warrant as console makers do occasionally during the cycle and can in turn sell this for $150 or less. With plenty of games already available.

Of course maybe this a microconsole then? But how can an OUYA compete against that?

Also working against microconsoles and the cheap app business model is install base. The iPHone had an automatic install base because everyone needs a phone. Same with Android phones. In turn you can price games at a few dollars and make money because the install base is so huge and even casual consumers will buy in. But a device just meant to play independent games on your tv with a standard controller? Not a big install base especially given the other factors above and below. Casual consumers aren't likely to pick this up.

Also don't forget the novelty of the capacitive touchscreen in driving game sales. This input method was new and novel and still is somewhat. Alot of new game experiences were released because of this new input method.

An Ouya has no such advantage. They have a standard game controller. There have been a ton of games released for the 360 in 7 years. Is there really that many new ideas left on the table that can sell an entirely new platform?

Then of course we have new consoles coming from MS and Sony. And have the Wii U already on the market that has its own unique console/gamepad hardware scheme. And is supposedly courting independent game makers more than ever. I can't imagine folks not drooling over MS's and Sony's next console hardware.


Thus I think the odds are long for any of these devices to achieve any measure of success.

The STeamBox is different. More of a direct console alternative than a new direction for consoles. And I don't think belongs in this discussion.

Arseniy Shved
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I mostly agree with you, but what about the accessibility of the platform for indie developres? It's not that easy to get a DevKit for XBox or PS3. Many of the indie folks who might contribute to the console gamedev were not doing so.
With Ouya it might change. It, as well, might not (obviously many of those who wanted to make games just had to do so on PC, iOS or Android)...

Bob Johnson
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@Arseniy

That is the one advantage OUYA has. But how much of an advantage is it? It isn't like independents aren't making games for consoles as it is. It is just that it will be easier for them to make games or that is the promise.

But there is nothing stopping MS, Sony and Nintendo from offering cheap development kits for smaller developers. And lessening other barriers to entry for smaller developers.

Even if the cheaper kits had limitations, a developer would have access to more power than a OUYA provides.

The competition won't be static.


Roberto Dillon
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>> This brings up the possibility of a universal game format, a kind of DVD of games - only not tied to physical disks.

If the Ouya is able to run Shield games, and the Gamestick is able to run Ouya games, that kind of thing changes the nature of consoles and makes it more basic
<<

This reminds me of the MSX computers. It would be great if this happens again with microconsoles!

James Hofmann
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I don't think they'll bomb. They might all succeed. Maybe particular companies and models will underdeliver, but as a whole this push isn't likely to fail. You can already find, today, a whole range of Android tablets for <$100, unsubsidized and with little-to-zero marketing gimmickry. Using the same tech to build a game-centric SKU is a known quantity - even if nobody understands how to make it a must-have, they'll probably do about as well as the tablets in the worst case. That's what it means to have a commodity device - you don't care a great deal what logo is on the box.

And a little over the horizon, it's easy to see all the major publishers getting in on the action and putting out some rebranded hardware of their own, mixed with walled garden strategies. But the optimal strategy is probably going to be an open, win-win one for some time to come. (or forever?)

Axel Cholewa
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Great write up!

Evan Combs
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With all this hype around these consoles, what happens when Google turns Google TV into an android console?

John Woznack
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Wasn't that the whole idea of Google TV to begin with?

Evan Combs
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That was never my impression. It always seemed to be going more after the Roku/AppleTV market than to be an actual console. That aspect seemed more secondary, if it was even considered a selling point at all.


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