After Hours

Game-room contest holds great influence over connectivity outside the enterprise

According to columnist Tim Landgrave, there's a great battle raging between vendors vying for consumers' allegiance in the gamers market that could have big implications when it comes to connectivity outside the enterprise.

There are several battles raging when it comes to connectivity outside today’s enterprise. While some may appear to be aimed solely at the consumer user, there are still strong implications for IT leaders working hard to extend connectivity outside the office walls and for CIOs grappling with platform choices and application development issues.

In the first part of this two-part series on connectivity outside the enterprise, we discussed the first two of three battles raging to grab connected consumers: Palm vs. Microsoft and TiVo vs. Microsoft.

As I indicated in the first installment, these battles will have a strong impact on how companies distribute applications (Palm vs. Windows CE) and content (TiVo vs. Microsoft) in the future.

Sony PlayStation vs. Microsoft Xbox
The PlayStation vs. Xbox battle can also be labeled as "the young vs. the old," or "the gamer vs. the geek." In raw numbers, the contenders can be identified more simply: 20M vs. 1.5M (installed units or projected installations by the end of 2001).

The first question, though, is why would Microsoft even attempt to take on Sony for dominance in the gamers market? Well, it is a $30-billion market. If Microsoft even captures a small share, the company will instantaneously gain a new line of business that will spur the growth that shareholders expect.

Secondly, this business move is an extension of Microsoft's existing business model, only this time, it's games running on PCs. The big differences between the Xbox and a basic PC are the Xbox's high-end graphics-processing engine, the interface (controller vs. keyboard and mouse, television vs. monitor), and the price ($699 for a PC with the same processing power as the $299 Xbox).

Third, making a move into the gamers market is a great test to determine how consumers will respond to a hardware platform from Microsoft. Bill Gates’ company has a history of creating PC add-ons that complement Microsoft software (mouse, keyboard, trackball, phone, joystick, racing wheels, etc.), but it has never created a hardware platform for sale.

Sony is approaching the battle from another corner. It has a clear history of creating unique hardware designs in many different markets, including cameras, Palm PCs, stereo equipment, MP3 players, laptops, desktops, and even electronic dogs (check out the Aibo). But it has always been held captive by software makers for their products (e.g., Palm Computing for the Clio handheld and Microsoft for its PCs).

Sony’s response has been to innovate in hardware, providing features that other manufacturers don’t have the resources to offer. The best example is its memory-stick technology. By implementing the memory stick as a replacement for CompactFlash, SmartFlash, and other removable media standards, Sony lets users freely pass information between Sony devices. If I have all Sony components, I can rip music from a CD on my Sony PC, save it on a memory stick, and plug it into my Sony Clio or MP3 player. Likewise, I can take pictures or short videos on my Sony camera and view them on my Sony PC without any kind of conversion.

Although other manufacturers haven’t licensed the memory-stick technology as yet, Sony sells enough supporting devices to pay for the research investment. More importantly, if consumers buy a Sony device that uses the memory stick, then they’re more likely to buy another Sony device to preserve their investment in memory-stick technology.

It’s this brand stickiness that Sony is counting on to elevate its PlayStation from a simple gaming machine to a network computing platform. Microsoft is counting on its own gaming machine to become a network computing platform as well. Both devices have built-in network connectivity. But where Sony’s focus is on simple add-ons, Microsoft’s Xbox provides broadband connectivity to allow not only for a rich multiplayer experience but also the ability to integrate Internet application functionality into the console. What kind of application functionality? How about letting users chat using audio and video streams managed by servers hosted by Microsoft with credentials provided by MyServicesPassport function? How about the ability to save game scenarios or custom players on the My Services' MyFiles service and then go over to a buddy’s house and play against him or her with those extended features?

The end game
So what do all three of these scenarios have in common?

1. Palm vs. Microsoft/Windows CE: The next release of CE includes .NET Compact Framework and consumes .NET My Services.

2. TiVo vs. Microsoft/UltimateTV: The next release of UltimateTV could easily consume .NET My Services.

3. Sony/PlayStation vs. Microsoft/Xbox: The next release of Xbox could include the .NET Compact Framework and consume .NET My Services.

And why should these consistencies concern today’s corporate developer? Well, it depends on the company's user population and whether there are consumer customers to consider. If consumer customers are involved, there’s a high probability that developers can help their enterprises reach customers in a unique fashion by providing either applications built on the .NET platform or services exposed via the MyServices framework.

As you consider your next generation of applications, you may look more favorably on using .NET as the core if part of your end game is to reach consumers. But for those investing in Java as the unifying language for application development, you may be facing a different conundrum, which I'll ponder below.

Does a standard platform help Microsoft or Sun?
Before we can determine if a standard platform would be beneficial to either Sun or Microsoft, we must first define the word “standard,” as it’s a bit muddy if you rely on the vendors’ definitions.

Although approved by no standards bodies, Sun continues to promote Java as a standard, citing that it is implemented by multiple manufacturers.

In much the same way, Microsoft will soon introduce its standard .NET platform. (It should be noted, however, that Microsoft has actually submitted many of the key .NET elements to ECMA , an international IT/telecommunications industry association dedicated to the standardization of information and communication systems, for standardization, a process from which Sun withdrew).

But will establishing .NET as a standard be an albatross or a panacea for Microsoft? Could the fact that manufacturers will have a much more limited set of hardware with which to work in implementing .NET on down-level devices open the door for Sun, because manufacturers can implement deep integration with Java and use it across a broader range of processors and platforms?

Yet Sun must rely on the device manufacturer to add Java. Any product using Microsoft technology, on the other hand, will automatically have access to .NET and will be able to use the Java language (Microsoft J#) but not have access to the Java platform.

Using .NET technology, existing device manufacturers can leverage their Java knowledge and the power of the .NET platform. The big question is, "Which approach will win?" Only time will tell.

Who do you think will win the battle?
Write and tell us who will win the battle for consumers or start a discussion about any connectivity issues your enterprise is experiencing.


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