This week one of the big items in the news is the Yahoo Peanut Butter Manifesto: Yahoo's marketing boss takes the company to task for being spread too thin and not being focused enough. Strangely enough, when you compare the working strategies for game systems between Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, in the end it is focus, or the lack of it, that differentiates the efforts.
I've been pounding on the Sony and Xbox 360 all week and had a chance to look at the Wii (but only in store) in its final form. We are seeing three very different consoles in the video gaming market right now that appeal to three very different user groups. If you are wondering which one may be best for you, here's some food for thought.
From the standpoint of industrial design, capability, and features it had no peer when it launched last year as the first of the next generation consoles. Since launch, it has accumulated over 100 game titles and a reasonably growing accessory secondary market. This stresses the core part of Microsoft's strategy which was first to market.
One problem the company had was manufacturing start late in the year in 2005. That caused a lot of folks, who might have bought Xbox 360, in the end did not, and probably did not buy them in the months that followed either. Still, this gave Microsoft a massive head start and they should end 2006 with the largest installed base of next generation gamers and clearly the largest related catalogue of games.
Core, and relatively unique when it was initially launched, to the Xbox strategy was Xbox Live. This included an on-line service that brokers games between individuals which added significantly to the user experience. In a few days, this service will include downloadable content including the first legally downloadable commercial HD content.
There was also a unique emphasis on voice which may have been a mistake - according to the experts on my gaming panel earlier this month. A lot of guys like to play women characters (it is interesting to note that, evidently, the opposite is almost never true) and voice somewhat messes up the effect. From personal experience, seeing a cute girl game character and then hearing a clearly masculine voice, is a bit disconcerting.
On hardware, they had a good industrial design that was, at least, partially modular and partially customizable with replaceable face plates. This modular nature worked for them since Microsoft was able to add an HD-DVD drive ($200 including remote) to the product. While somewhat inelegant (the Xbox and HD-DVD Drive don't stack well and the ID is inconsistent), current Xbox 360 users now have a $200 HD solution that is less than half the price of a comparable HD-DVD player. Microsoft charges royalties for Xbox 360 accessories and some of their partners (Logitech, in particular) complained that they were locked out of parts of the market.
Xbox Accessories, however, are very rich in design and construction quality and often premium priced. The new racing wheel is especially stunning.
Finally, Microsoft connected the dots both on the software side, making it easy for developers to develop titles for both PCs and Xbox platforms, and on the hardware side with connections into PCs (particarly Media Center PCs) and wired accessories that would work with both PCs and the Xbox.
So, to net it all out, Microsoft's strategy was to move early, wrap the product with an online experience (including media), gain synergy with other Microsoft platforms, and move aggressively with connected accessories. Problems were the amount of product available the first Christmas, third parties accessories vendors, who aren't getting the support they have asked for, no HDMI support, and voice possibly being more of a problem then a benefit. Arguably the most complex strategy but, after the launch problems, Microsoft executed reasonably well.
Sony Playstation 3
I've been playing this for much of the last weekend and it's a solid game machine, powerful graphics, beautiful industrial design, and a good set of secondary features that are, perhaps, a little harder to use than they need to be.
The software inside the box seems relatively rough compared to the Xbox 360 but the 360 has now had a number of updates and the Playstation 3 remains very young. In case design, Sony is best in class with a beautiful piano black and silver color and very sleek lines. The anticipated new controller design got bad reviews so Sony fell back on a wireless version of the PS2 controller that is showing its age and is relatively uncomfortable when compared to the Xbox device. This should make Logitech happy as they arguably have the best Playstation 3 aftermarket controller currently on the market.
The Sony controller is motion sensitive, it would appear to respond to the Nintendo threat, but the motion sensing features are rudimentarily when compared to the Wii and they were kind of annoying in the one game I had that used them.
Sony has been blasted for not competing as a company and the Playstation 3 indicates some progress, but I'm not sure it is the right kind of progress. For instance, they put in a Blu-ray drive, but this drive ran into production problems which delayed manufacturing until way too late. The end result is Sony had to postpone European launch and didn't have enough to even cover first day demand repeating the Xbox 360 launch mistake. The Blu-ray drive also pushed the cost of the fully featured system $200 higher than the comparable Xbox 360 and over 2x what the Nintendo Wii is.
While the Xbox 360 HD-DVD player comes with a good film, King Kong, the PS3 ships (for now) with Talladega Nights that really doesn't showcase the system well at all. The Sony doesn't ship with a DVD remote either and navigation using the wireless game controller is probably not something a non-gamer would enjoy. Going from the Xbox to the Sony, one really notices the lack of a remote. In short, the addition of the Blu-ray drive as a built-in offering - instead of a modular component - hurts it significantly at launch.
While Sony also has an on-line service where you can download certain things, it doesn't yet have movie and TV show downloads, even though Sony should be more able to provide this then Microsoft because they actually own a studio. This is the kind of thing that really points to Sony's inability to compete as a company. I had difficulty downloading game trailers without crashing.
The system itself has HDMI support for the HD experience and this is unmatched by either Nintendo or Microsoft. It also has an internal power supply which makes it easer to set up but also appears to make it run hotter. Of the three, it is the easiest to initially set up (when hooked up to a current generation High Definition TV).
Sony won't integrate with a Vaio PC, even though the Xbox 360 will, which still seems incredibly foolish to me (why would you provide better connectivity to a competitor?).
So the Sony strategy appears to surround Blu-Ray. Their desire to push it into the market in large numbers resulted in delayed shipments, a harder to use system, and some weird choices like leaving out the remote as a bundled item. Like Microsoft, the Sony Playstation is substantially cheaper than a stand alone Blu-ray deck (often selling for more than $1000) but, unlike the Microsoft solution, it is not complete as shipped.
In the end, the PS3 simply feels incomplete and rushed and will probably be a much stronger offering after the core software is updated next year.
The Wii is pure gaming, lacking the multi-media focus of the other two systems. Nintendo focused on game play and came up with a unique motion sensitive game pad that initially caused concern but currently is driving rave reviews. Hitting an aggressive $250 price point and avoiding both the Microsoft and Sony mistakes with regard to initial volumes, it shipped millions of machines into the market and still sold out. Numbers will probably show that Nintendo easily outsold both the Sony and the Microsoft products through November but since Nintendo has hit constraint now as well, Microsoft, which is not constrained, could still catch up before year end.
Showcasing a very clean and simple design, the system is not High Definition and isn't designed to be a DVD player, HD or otherwise. However Nintendo recently announced they would have an extra price DVD software upgrade next year. This is a game system pure play and the market often favors pure-play products, because it understands them and buyers are less likely to be intimidated.
The Nintendo Wii is emulating the successful Palm Pilot and Apple iPod strategies in staying focused and reasonable pricing. Its shortcoming is that it largely plays to a younger audience and that may limit its potential market size. This claim is not entirely accurate, because my wife, who is not a gamer, and despite the fact that I have both an Xbox 360 and a Playstation 3 wants to get a Nintendo Wii because she feels she could easily beat me in a game of virtual tennis with the motion activated controller.
So, Nintendo's strategy was to stay focused on the basics, good player, good price, great controllers. I like simple strategies because they are easiest to execute and Nintendo is collecting the benefits right now.
The Microsoft Xbox 360 currently provides the richest overall gaming and media experience thanks largely to a robust platform and having a year launch lead. The Nintendo Wii provides the best individual, aerobic, gaming experience and will likely be the most popular with parents (and wives) as a result. The Sony PS3 simply doesn't feel finished, but, given the ability to download updates many of these shortcomings should be addressed next year. Once that happens the Sony should be able to better go toe to toe with the other players, for now the market (at least for the new generation of gaming systems) appears to belong to Microsoft at the high end and Nintendo at the low end.
If I were buying a system for myself or for someone into High Definition programming, I'd favor the Xbox, as a gift for kids I'd favor the Nintendo (assuming I could find it) and, with the Sony, I'd stick with the PSP (arguably the best portable player and both more affordable and more available this year) until the PS3 matures a little more and drops out of the Ebay nose bleed pricing phase.
Rob Enderle is principal analyst for the Enderle Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.