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Microsoft working on a portable XBox

Comment Handheld rumours investigated
Tue Jun 20 2006, 17:17
OVER THE PAST year, rumours of an Xbox handheld, in a similar guise to Sony's PSP, have popped up in various forms, tenuous links and alleged false rumours.

One of the latest rumours has emerged in a significantly more reliable source (when compared to fanboy gossip that surface from the cauldron's of Internet forums) that of Dean Takahashi in his latest book, The Xbox 360 Uncloaked.

Takahashi claims that around fifty per-cent of the Xbox 360 hardware team is hard at work on the new machine, which he states is to be released half way through the Xbox 360's lifespan.

If we estimate a mainstream console's lifespan is around four/five years, this would put the release date of this portable at somewhere at the end of 2007/beginning of 2008. It is possible developer's will have already been briefed on the product and possibly handed early-release specs, documentation and SDK's.

Early rumours of the handheld were stoked by the news that Transmeta was dealing with Microsoft on a considerable scale we reported earlier that 30 Transmeta engineers were assigned to Microsoft.

Considering that Microsoft does not produce hardware (disregarding the odd peripheral), except for the Xbox and related products, its highly plausible that this team of engineers is working on some device for the Xbox division.

The fact that the Transmeta staff were reportedly hired around May of last year, effectively rules out any development on the Xbox 360 project - hardware and design were very much finalised by this point, and final development kits were actually delivered only a month or two later after Transmeta staff joined - not enough time to have any feasible impact on Xbox 360 design.

However, recent news that Transmeta engineer's were used by Microsoft to develop for the Vole's 'Pay-As-You-Go' PC for emerging markets, effectively ruled-out any role for the team of Transmeta engineer's within a portable Xbox, for now.

Since Microsoft has worked closely with Transmeta on several different occasions over the last few years, on various projects, it is likely to be a first-port-of-call for technical resources regarding low-power/low-drain high-spec ICs. Keeping an eye on Transmeta and any press-releases regarding work with Microsoft, is probably a good idea. No-one has stated the Transmeta engineers have actually been released back to Transmeta...

No firm proof has come from the Transmeta deal, so why the continuing speculation about the Xbox portable? Takahashi certainly added fuel to the fire, but many other recent activities within Microsoft have also contributed to the belief that a portable device could be in the works.

A large restructuring task was undertaken at Microsoft in December. Takahashi alleges that the approval of the handheld spurred the reorganisation of the entire leadership team in Microsoft's 'Home and Entertainment' division, headed up by newly promoted Robbie Bach.

This group combines the Xbox with other mobile and entertainment businesses in one of four major product groups. The jobs of the other top Xbox executives were expanded so that they could manage all of the businesses related to this new broader division, which included the Xbox business, mobile devices, MSN, music, and home productivity software. J. Allard, whose group designed the Xbox 360, was named to head 'experience and design'' for the entire division.

It's fairly clear the reason for the reorganisation was to bring Allard, Lee, Gibson and all of the relevant businesses into a single working entity, that encompasses more than just the Xbox 360, i.e. the newly approved handheld device. The reorganisation and allocation of these highly experienced individuals into a broad all-encompassing division, suggests that Microsoft is taking the prospect of their handheld device very seriously.

It is thought the main obstacle and the cause of most infighting within Microsoft concerning the production of the device, has been the form of which the product will be released. Gaming device? Media device? Or both?

It's widely known the Vole is none too happy about the huge success and market-share-grabbing device that is the Apple iPod. For Microsoft to release its own-brand music-player tied-down to its own DRM-infected music store would be unthinkable (albeit for the non-evil Apple this is completely fine), anti-trust lawyers the world-over would be rubbing their hands with glee, along with product manufacturers such as Creative, et al.

But what if this media player was 'only' a sideline function of an otherwise fully-functional gaming device. Surely this couldn't be a trojan-horse-esque attempt to allow a revolt against the market-leading iPod & iTunes combination? Or could it?

Considering the PSP's luke-warm success with its media-playing abilities - the UMD's quick demise, and the failure of Sony to capitalise quickly on an PSP-based music store - its hard to know whether Microsoft will succeed concerning its own device's media-esque abilities. Media storage and playback will always be useful on a portable device, such as it is currently on the PSP, but selling more complicated features, including paid-for music and movie downloads, has not yet been attempted on a game-cum-media-playback device. Even the Xbox 360's established 'Live' service hasn't yet dared move into the 'paid-for media store' type market - somewhat surprisingly considering its considerably advanced media-playback features.

Nintendo's Wii and Sony's PS3 have one major element that Microsoft's Xbox 360 does not have. A handheld equivalent (DS and PSP for its competitor's consoles respectively) that will tie-in and operate with their main home game-playing console. Microsoft probably feels it cannot allow a) their two competitor's this added consumer-perceived market-leverage, and b) allow these two company's further market share in a market segment it wouldn't mind operating-in and owning itself.

This huge motivation for a handheld gaming device along with the massive desire to strangle the media-playing market with its own DRM solutions, coupled with its perceived failings within its original mobile-offerings (PocketPC, TabletPC) and current struggling product initiatives (Origami/UMPC), has forced Microsoft's hand; a portable, game-centric, media-playing device that will take on the might of Sony, Nintendo, Apple, et al, all at once. Whether it will be a market success as either a portable games-console or a media-playback device, is another question altogether.

Interestingly just after this article was written, the web has been flooded with further speculation that Microsoft is attempting to breach the MP3 player market with the aforementioned game-playing, media-do-it-all device. More and more people allegedly 'in-the-know' are suggesting that this device will be a media-based product that will be coupled with an XBox 360 or a standard home PC, to download music, music videos, television shows, and movies, possibly coupled with a basic game-playing capability, via an iTunes-esque media store - presumably a further development of the EU-hated Windows Media Player.

The reorganisation of the entire home products division, coupled with the recent 'disappearance' from the press and media of Allard - allegedly very busy doing "other things", Bill Gates speaking of "plenty of growth yet to come in the handheld space" at the 'D: All Things Digital' conference a week ago, Microsoft's recent foray's into the UPMC/Origami market, the very recent incessant rumours of an iPod/iTunes-esque coupling solution from the Vole, and Takahashi's firm insistence the product is real, it is highly likely the rumours of a Microsoft handheld portable gaming/media-playback device will continue, until the product is finally confirmed or completely dismissed out-of-hand. µ

Takahashi for Mercury News
Xbox Portable mock-up round-up


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