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Microsoft's Struggle with Standards


In the previous console generation, the first system I owned was the Wii. It didn't take very long for me to realize that I didn't make a very wise decision with that. After finishing Okami (which I pretty much ignored on the PS2) I wasn't having as much fun as I first thought I would with Nintendo's little waggle box. I got me a PS3 some time later, which I knew I eventually would anyway, and felt I was completely set for the rest of the generation. The PS3 has since become my primary system. This was back when I was (relatively) a fresh grad out of the university, and employed in my very first job. I was earning a decent sum of money for the first time in my life, and was in a state were I was capable of supporting a hobby like video games. It's understandable that also for the first time, I'm owning two out of three consoles within the same generation.

As someone who finds Microsoft products poorly designed in general, I was pretty sure I didn't need an Xbox 360... until an officemate brought his console at the office, and let me try it out. It did not change my mind instantly, but it moved the 360 from "I don't really need it", to "hey, it might be fun to have". Like I said, I was young (I still pretty much am at the time of writing), I had disposable income, so I can be irrational about spending my money, right? Well... I asked my dad for a 360 as a birthday gift; since I already had a job, he just agreed to shoulder part (most) of the cost. Good enough. I bit. I put aside most of my doubts about the system, and made an exception for the Xbox 360.

This is pretty close to how my first job looked like.

Unboxing Some Disappointments

As is the case for many people, unboxing is one of the most exciting part of buying a new gadget for me. Considering I got my Xbox 360 for my birthday, when usually nothing special really happens, I was quite happy that I had something to be excited for. That was until I actually had to set up the console from most of what's inside the box.

Based on my experience with the PS3, I was right to expect that it didn't come with a HDMI cable, only with the standard AV one. Back then, I only had a 22" LCD monitor, which only has a DVI port, to which I attached an adapter for HDMI inputs. This means the audio signal has to come from somewhere else, and to be routed directly to external speakers. With my PS3, I can set it to output audio through the RCA connector, which is easy to link to just about any set of speakers. Perhaps this made so much sense to Microsoft.

With the Xbox 360, users have no way to specify which port to output audio (and video) to; the signals are simultaneously streamed to both HDMI, and standard AV ports. That's not the bad part though. To be able to use both ports at the same time, I have to crack open the RCA connector that came with the console, because Microsoft thought it was a great idea to block access to HDMI port when their RCA connector is in use. Hey, if they can force me to buy their expensive "solution" instead, it would be so much better, right? Typical Microsoft.

Now, more than four years later, I discovered another not-so-great thing about MS's previous gen system. After having a blast with Wind Waker HD, and Mario Kart 8 on the Wii U, and completing Binary Domain on the PS3, I decided to go back playing The Lost Odyssey, which, needless to say, is an Xbox 360 exclusive. I took the 360's controller from the cabinet I placed it safely in, put in the batteries, and press the home button to power the console on. It didn't work like it did the very last time I used it. The lights around the Xbox logo remained dead. I changed the batteries, it's still dead. I swapped polarity (hey, experiment), of course it didn't do anything. I shaked it, pressed random buttons: nope, nothing. I prepared myself for the worst: to spend money I could otherwise spend on a new game to a new controller I probably wouldn't use that much at this point. I thought perhaps an internal power source got drained, or something, so I held on the home button for a long time, and suddenly, I saw a quick flash from the LEDs. Yes! Whew. But it didn't stay on for a long time. The controller isn't dead it just went bonkers. Uh, why? When I kept it nice, and safe in storage, I don't really expect it to just act crazy when I use it again. I hit the Web for answers, and this is what I found:

Wireless controller fix

It seems like a small thing (well, considering it's about that tiny piece of plastic, it's literally a small thing), but it's still pretty annoying. Why is the battery container designed in such a way that it could stop working much earlier than expected due to some small mechanical component? Cracking open the case for the console's RCA connector was a messy work around already, now I have to put in a folded piece of paper to get the controller working properly. These don't seem right.

Less Sense, More Profits

All these remind me of what I kind of have known for a long time: Microsoft make a lot of poorly designed products, sometimes deliberately so. I don't think I really have to say a lot more about Xbox 360's infamous Red Ring of Death, which is itself a play on that signature Windows "feature", the Blue Screen of Death. Based on my personal encounters with them, I get the impression that Microsoft's shoddy products are a mix of plain and simple bad design, oversight, and/or aggressive profiteering.

"Infamous Red Ring of Death"

In the advent of this console generation, Microsoft introduced us their new gaming system, the Xbox One, and with it, aspired to change the way people consume video games as paid contents. Xbox One was originally designed to allow disc-based games to be used only once, tying each of them to the console it was first used on. The implementation of such policy (and all other related protocols) necessitated the console to have daily system checks to verify licenses, which required the console to be almost constantly online. While this change could have potentially bridged the gap between retail/physical, and online digital distribution, it has huge negative implications to consumers in terms of product ownership, which has to be constrained in many ways. In addition, it also has directly threatened the used games market, which many people, both retailers, and consumers alike, rely on. This is why, during E3 2013, Sony seized the chance to trample on Microsoft's largely anti-consumer proposition, and created for themselves a considerable amount of good will.

Aside from the restrictive rules on using physically distributed video games, there are other aspects of Xbox One that a huge portion of the industry took negatively. One such was the mandatory inclusion of Kinect that not only drove the console's price to be higher than the direct competitor's, but also made people uncomfortable amidst the concerns on privacy, and government surveillance. In addition, motion controls didn't really get community wide acceptance and adoption, and have gone quite passe after people moved on from the Wii fad. Microsoft insisted that Kinect was an essential part of the entire system, that the console would not work without it, but it has recently been made an optional peripheral.

Speaking of peripherals, there is one other thing about the Xbox One that is very consistent with how Microsoft design their products: the adapter for its controller's proprietary headset port. Microsoft seem to have found it more sensible to use their own system-exclusive connector instead of the widely supported phone connector (more commonly known as audio jack) utilized by many across different multimedia-related industries. I am personally not knowledgeable of the inner workings of the new Xbox One and its controller, but some people believe that the console streams high quality (surround) audio to the controller, which necessitated the customized audio port. It is thought by some that the adapter, if I understand correctly, does some signal/data processing to preserve the quality of the audio being streamed to the controller. That's fine, and it actually sounds neat, but, well not really.

As a counterexample, the PlayStation Portable's proprietary headset connector, which is sort of a hybrid: it's partly standard, and partly proprietary. There are many peripherals that make use of the proprietary plug to do what they're designed to do, usually play or stream audio, and/or video from the system, with some additional features in between. At the same time, most standard earphones are still usable with it without any need for an adapter because part of its design is a 3.5mm phone connector slot. Users don't have to spend more just so they can use their earphones with the PSP. This makes me wonder why Microsoft didn't do something similar. It's quite baffling as a huge corporation like Microsoft is expected to have some the brightest minds in the industry under its payroll. Why didn't any of them think of imitating what Sony did for PSP? Oh wait, I think I have an idea.

Many people have already expressed disappointment to what they think is a silly attempt to nickel and dime consumers. As a result, similar to what has been done with that ridiculous measure to limit access to HDMI when using standard RCA connector on Xbox 360, a workaround for this pointless adapter has already been posted on the Web. If people at Microsoft insist that the proprietary interface is necessary to achieve what they wanted to do with audio streamed to the controller, then it means that the controllers are being shipped with a significant part deliberately omitted. Each audio peripheral (e.g. headset, earphone, etc.) that utilizes the proprietary port would then have to be shipped with that "missing controller part" in them, and much of the cost of that is passed on to the consumers for every purchase. In fact, the first two officially licensed Turtle Beach headsets for Xbox One are sold bundled with the headset adapter. A console generation later, people still have to put up with all the nonsense Microsoft is making. What if instead of packing the console with the low quality headset, they cut it apart, then slap a 3.5mm audio jack in between the connector, and the earphone (similar to the hack)? This way, users can replace the actual headset part with their own if they want to. Well, that probably makes so much sense.

Microsoft Problems

War on Standards

Microsoft have always seem to be a company who have a strong aversion for widely accepted standards that they do not have control over. They have been involved in a list of many different cases where they went aggressively against competition (and competing standards) to secure their business. Years ago, around the time when they were about to release Office 2007, they created Office Open XML (OOXML), also known as OpenXML, that was meant to rival the pre-existing, and widely supported Open Document Format (ODF), in a bid to secure their dominance in the office software market. According to an archived Wired article, while licenses for OOXML are free and perpetual, the specification, at a massive 6,000 pages, which they themselves have been accused of not fully complying to, eschews industry-standard tools in favor of proprietary Microsoft options. Despite all their efforts, there has been a steadily growing support for ODF from governments around the world, and as result Microsoft feel some considerable threat to their hold on the market. Earlier this year, they tried convincing the UK government to reconsider choosing ODF as the official standard for government documents.

With their Direct3D (part of the DirectX libraries), Microsoft have also been competing against the Open Graphics Library (OpenGL). OpenGL is an open standard, cross-platform Application Programming Interface (API) for rendering graphics that has implementations on many different operating systems like GNU/Linux, Mac OS X, even MS's very own Windows. It's also being supported by many graphics card manufacturers. NVIDIA, AMD, and Intel even teamed up at this year's Game Developer Conference (GDC 2014) to explain how OpenGL can unlock 15 times performance gains. However, unlike the situation with ODF, MS have generally been successful in utilizing the network effect to push DirectX as the more widely supported tools in making games for PCs. As a result, majority of the releases of video games for personal computers still require Windows to run. This means users who prefer using different operating systems on their machines are still pretty much out of luck when it comes to video games, especially with the mainstream, AAA titles.

The battle against OpenGL started earlier than the resistance against ODF, but they share very similar motives: to eliminate competition by creating a space only Microsoft can develop for, or has total control over. It has already been mentioned that while OpenXML is technically an open standard, a significant part of its specification has been designed to favor Microsoft's proprietary offerings. Instead of promoting a common space where they can compete with other parties on a level playing field, Microsoft always seem to choose one where there's no other option but for them to win, and for their consumers to be locked in. Instead of them fully supporting ODF, or OpenGL (in which they were directly involved in the past) by enabling complete interoperation with their products, they insist on having their own way the only way.

Microsoft seem to want everyone playing by their rules. I've already mentioned how they originally wanted to control the use of video games, and to limit the ownership with the Xbox One, resulting in them threatening the used games market, but that's not the first for the company. In the PC front, Valve's Gabe Newell, along with some other game developers, had not too long ago expressed concerns about the direction MS is taking Windows 8 especially regarding how it negatively impacts video games. Windows 8 comes with its very own store front where users are encouraged to install all software from. In the case of Windows RT, a flavor of Windows 8 for mobile devices, there's no other option for installing software but through the Windows Store. Many game developers find this a bit too restrictive as every application that is made available in the store has to go through Microsoft's certification process. This is not entirely a bad thing as this publishing model has been working well for consoles, and even smartphones for a long time now. Still, for everyone who has become used to what flexibility the platform has offered for a long time, this is quite a huge shift that restrains them in significant ways. Also, in the case of Valve, it's obvious that the Windows Store is in direct competition with their Steam store front, and since the former is owned by the platform holder, it's quite hard to think that things can go in favor of the latter.

Once is Enough?

Having been involved in many different software development projects myself, I have very deep appreciation for open standards for how they make building, maintaining, integrating, and utilizing systems easier for everyone involved. Heck, the Web would not have been without them allowing for high degree of interoperability. Almost every resource exchanged on the Web comply to a well understood set of specifications so servers, and clients know what to do with them. At the same time, I also don't believe that proprietary products are intrisically evil. I'd go for an open source (with free license) solution if there's one available, but paying a private company for a solid product is also a valid option (especially if I can justify its cost). Good thing is that closed source solutions, and open standards are not mutually exclusive. For example, Apple's implementation of OpenGL may be proprietary, yet it still complies to the open standard.

Proprietary solutions aren't bad, but when they're taken too far, it can be very detrimental to the industry, most especially to the consumers. Microsoft seem to be one of those companies that tend to do so. When they can just allow the use of both HDMI, and RCA cables at the same time on the Xbox 360, they chose to design it in such a way that forces consumers to pay extra for it. Instead incorporating a 3.5mm audio jack into the Xbox One's controller, they went ahead and created their own plug so they can ask headset manufacturers for licensing fees, and sell consumers another of their silly adapters. It's not very surprising as it has been what they've been doing for a long time to secure their business. There's nothing wrong with ensuring that the company remains afloat, but competing with widely accepted open standards by presenting a closed one seems to be a little too much. Microsoft's struggle with standards is a battle against choice.

There is also the question of poor build quality, and sloppy design. Early last generation, the video games industry was plagued with Xbox 360's that went RROD, and it took a while for that to get addressed. The infamous overheating problem was one of the reasons I was cautious to get a 360 at first. Now after a few years of owning one, I need to fold a small piece of paper to get my controller working as it should. It's a minor thing that probably doesn't happen to everyone, but considering someone posted a solution that worked for me on YouTube, there probably is a considerable number who has experienced the same thing. I have been trying to avoid MS products for years for these reasons (and more) but I made an exception for the Xbox 360, and to be honest, I don't really regret I did. I would have been open to do the same for the Xbox One if it didn't launch to remind me about why it's difficult to do that for Microsoft.
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About Psycho Punchone of us since 11:15 AM on 05.18.2010

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