Tag Archives: Microsoft

The future of Xbox is to copy Steam Machines

More to the point, the future is licensing.

As Microsoft has shown time and time again, they know how to observe a good idea and copy it. This tenant is core to the way Microsoft operates since its inception when Bill Gates used what he learned from working on Macintosh OS and replicated the idea for IBM machines running DOS. While the company has grown, so did its number of operating systems for different devices. PCs had their unique OS. However, so did Mobiles, Embedded components, Servers, MP3 players, game consoles, and more. But now – as CEO Satya Nadella sees the unification of OS code – the Windows 10 model returns Microsoft to a position of being able to offer that open-market choice for hardware manufacturers.

As the Xbox will be running Windows 10, surely this business will undergo a transformation. Xbox President Phil Spencer continues to emphasize the blurring of Xbox & PC gaming. It is widely accepted that the Xbox One’s hardware specs are well behind Sony’s PlayStation, and it is also understood that Microsoft was making them for nominal profit (although that figure comes from when the Kinect was included). As game developers become more adept at squeezing the most out of available tools for these nearly two-years-on-the-market consoles, the gap in hardware capacity is becoming more and more evident. Microsoft will be looking to avoid this embarrassment again in the future. Ultimately, the best way for them to indemnify themselves from blame is to share the responsibility.

Innovative gaming company Valve will be releasing its first Steam Machine in November of this year. Steam Machines are essentially computers running Valve’s specialized Linux distribution, SteamOS. These machines will require manufacturers to submit hardware configurations to Valve for testing and certification in order to receive the Steam Machine licensing. Valve’s idea is stupendous. It’s brilliant. It’s marvelous. It gives the consumer choice as to just how much he or she is willing to spend. Does the customer want a $500 box or a $2000 box? Complaints are minimized because it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. It provides Valve with licensing revenue. But alas, the business model itself isn’t patentable. And Microsoft will copy it for Xbox.

The embarrassment that was and is the Xbox One will never be repeated. Xbox gaming hardware won’t be second best again. A wealth of third-party hardware manufacturers will take the helm as new Windows SKUs will read something like Windows TV, Windows Xbox, or Windows Gaming. There will likely exist between 3-5 grades for these systems which will determine what settings, and even what games can run at what grade system. Questions do exist though. Will Xbox gamers be able to build their own hardware configurations for these SKUs? If not, are these machines intended to be user-upgradeable? Is it possible to swap graphics cards? Can RAM be increased? Or will one be forced to buy a new “Xbox” in order to improve the hardware? What other Windows features will be available within the OS? When will this change occur?

These questions are clearly being worked out. But whatever happens, the change will be good for Microsoft. They save themselves the trouble of R&D, manufacturing logistics, retail agreements, shipping arrangements, international-body political tribunals, supply chain creation, hardware support, along with other facets of selling and building both hardware and software. Thousands of jobs will surely be cut. There is also the matter of new revenue streams from collecting licensing, new subscription fees from users, accessories, and a constant stream of up-to-date hardware choices for the Xbox ecosystem. With attribution to Jon Stewart’s daily show moniker, Well played Mr. Nadella.

Destructive Environments: Up in the Cloud

During Microsoft’s Build 2014 conference, one of many interesting projects demoed was a prototype game using both local and server resources. Displayed onscreen was, the intricate dismantling of a multi-story building. When one glass pane was destroyed by the operator’s industrial laser weapon, it would shatter into hundreds of pieces. These chunks of concrete would then descend through gravity before shattering into hundreds of additional shards. The demo, later revealed to be a very early build of the next Crackdown title on Xbox One, was demonstrated primarily to showcase one way whereby the Xbox One might supersede its competition on the graphics front. The disparity in performance between the DDR3 memory of Microsoft’s console pitted against the GDDR5 memory in Sony’s PlayStation 4 has been covered in the games media ad nauseam. But having just wrapped up Build 2015, Microsoft has yet to release a title for its Xbox platform with the demoed tech.

Prototypes can sometimes be misleading. So skepticism regarding Microsoft’s claims is understandable. But in this case, the skepticism can be readily dismissed as the enmeshing of local and server resources for gaming purposes has already been accomplished. Titanfall, EA’s multiplayer-only game, delegated real-time enemy AI to an Azure server. NPC spawning, movements, and clean-up was computed “in the cloud” & then pushed to players in real-time. Most importantly, Titanfall executed well. The game performs as expected.

While AI & destructible environments are two different components in a game engine, they each share underlying code. Spatial positioning, placement, and movement are traits both components share. The offloading of these computational intensive tasks to a more powerful server, which then distributes the values for anyone connected to that particular game session, is again a distributable concept.

This technology was examined over a year ago and has yet to show up again in any publicly available games – alphas, betas, or otherwise. So where is it? Perhaps it is in HoloLand, a narrow place where $2 billion Minecraft and $4 billion Nokia acquisitions reside.

Source: Polygon

6/18/15 UPDATE: E3 2015 has just concluded and this graphics enhancing technology is still MIA.

8/04/15 UPDATE 2: Crackdown 3 was finally revealed at Gamescom 2015 with this tech in tow.

Portable Software on OneDrive

PC users running portable freeware has for several years existed as a sub-culture. The PortableApps platform was launched in 2006. The platform was built around the idea of portability. The notion of being able carry around your programs and files, and being able to access them from any Windows PC, wherever you were was an appealing concept. Remember, this was well before the iPhone’s arrival, mobile OSes, & cloud services becoming a bandwidth viable reality for consumers. Also, the “Apps” here is short for software, not to be confused with Apple’s redefinition of touch applications when they launched the App Store in 2008.

Purchased mobile “apps” from stores are now tied that respective account. Personal storage of files has been addressed by cloud services with the likes of Dropbox, Onedrive, Google Drive, and Box. So all is good and well, right? Wrong. Arguments about the viability of mobile OSes being used for productivity can be found in many places, and will not be covered in this post with one exclusion. The sole point to be mentioned is that despite mobile apps being simplistic, they certainly aren’t as feature-rich or robust as desktop software.

For desktop productivity users, the obvious resolution is to combine the benefits of cloud storage with portable software, having a Portable “Program Files” directory readily available. In theory, perfectly logical. It does work. However, it comes at the cost of computer resources.

For instance, I run clipboard manager software, called Ditto. It saves and journals anytime an image or text is cut or copied. It runs when the computer starts up. This program, located within my OneDrive folder on Windows runs in the background. It writes changes to the main database file during instances of copy & paste. The program itself is minimal, coming in at about 2 M. But the database it creates gets large…quickly. Right now, mine is at 30 MB after clearing it just a month ago. Anytime a change is made, the OneDrive synchronization process eats up to 30% of this dual core CPU. The “unsynchronized” file is then uploaded, slowing down network activity. Then, Windows Search indexing begins running, gobbling up to 25% of the notebook’s total CPU.

ditto

If this were to happen once or twice a month, that would be fine. But it is a regular occurrence. Ditto is the most pervasive program, but other examples include:

PicPick – graphics tools
MusicBee – music manager and player
Pazera – quickest audio/video converters

Of course, OneDrive – a built-in process on Windows 10 – isn’t the only option. One could install software like DropBox or Google Drive which have sync frequency options. These run in the background and effectively use up additional computer resources, creating the same superfluous use of CPU cycles. Although highly improbable, Microsoft can address this issue by setting a folder within OneDrive to synchronize at much more infrequent rate from the other persistently synced folders. Much like a DMZ is for a router, this folder could be one with its own rules.

Blending desktop software with the new storage mediums like OneDrive is currently possible, but not without unnecessary use of CPU resources. It is questionable whether we’ll receive more advanced options as these storage technologies continue maturing and connectivity solutions improve.

After spending a decade on Xbox, I swapped for a PlayStation. Here’s why

One afternoon, my Colombian friend from high school put me on a journey that would last some ten plus years. We booked it to his house afterschool. With his mother fixing up the house, we were left with ample time before dinner. He had just gotten an Xbox and was anxious to show off some incredible games. There were a few options on the table but he was hyping FIFA, so we started with that. Needless to say, the Colombian schooled me in ways which reinforce the nation’s ruthless stereotype. With soccer competition devoid of any meaningful rivalry, he most generously offered up a cooperative experience found within a futuristic shooter, Halo. Within five minutes, I was hooked. A few months later, shortly before Halo 2’s release, I traded in my PS2 & purchased an Xbox.

Halo 2 was fantastic. The multiplayer support extended 3 years after the game’s release with downloadable content made readily available for the masses, free of charge. In fact, to continue playing the multiplayer, it was required that you download said content. This model made the community whole in the way one feels when looking at a cake prior to it being sliced and doled out. Halo 3 dropped the requirement to download content. The company reasoned they would no longer offer new content free of charge. This optional content model has continued fragmenting the community in all ensuing releases.

I’ve slowly watched the series many have grown to love disrobed, prodded, bled, quartered, and now hung. For years, I’d hoped that the incumbent studio in charge of the franchise would get it together. These hopes were in vain however. The studio’s greedy executives, namely Bonnie Ross and Frank O’Connor, have done every unfriendly thing a large corporation would do to maximize profits. Furthermore, rather than just raising prices, they have pursued detrimental courses of action which detract from the positive experience once associated with the series. For this camel, the last straw has been their fundamentally flawed, publicly misrepresented, and fraudulently advertised release, the Master Chief Collection.

By this point, you’re likely wondering, “Besides Halo, what else does the current Xbox have over the current PlayStation? The Xbox controller is universally praised as best-in-class, and rightly so. Xbox Live has a more robust server offering. There are also some additional applications such as ESPN, Comedy Central, and HBO GO. But… the PlayStation contains better hardware and offers more and higher quality free games every month. Additionally, applications such as Netflix launch twice as quickly. The system software also feels fluid and operates more smoothly than the Xbox OS. Did I mention more free games?

In summation, the Halo series’ inability to change leadership coupled with Xbox Live’s anemic Games for Gold program forced my hand. Do I miss my Xbox? Sometimes. Will Halo 5 be great? Maybe. But I refuse to wait on a company whose track record shows a singular trend of increasingly greedy policies. If Microsoft were to remove the cancerous elements at 343, namely Bonnie Ross and Frank O’Connor, I’d strongly consider returning to Xbox One. This scenario is doubtful, given that Bonnie Ross was recently promoted to a VP position in August 2014. As the Colombian idiom goes, colgó los guayos, or ‘hang the shoes’. The footwear is no longer needed.

HBO can now be accessed via the Xbox One

Woody Allen once said, “I took a test in Existentialism. I left all the answers blank and got 100.”

This Saturday marks 365 days of Xbox One retail availability. When the console was announced at E3 2013, Microsoft promised HBO GO by the holiday season. Assumption got the better of us silly Xbox owners, thinking such statements implied Holiday 2013. Surely, the announcement, existential in nature, was referring to a full year after the console launched.
One of the most highly sought video-on-demand solutions, Netflix aside, is HBO Go. It is now on Xbox One, but after several delays and blatantly misleading PR, the release seems tainted. Rather than a grateful reception of the service, the sentiment is akin to that disgruntled thanks your incompetent coworker receives as they complete a report which they promised to turn in 18 months ago.

WHY THE DELAYS

In March 2012, an app was made available for the Xbox 360. It took two years for Sony’s PlayStation 3 to receive the service. And when it did, one major cable operator refused to participate, blocking its PS3 customers from using the service through that platform. That carrier, who also blocks Roku devices from accessing HBO GO, is Comcast Xfinity. As America’s largest cable provider, it would be fair to assume they’ve played a large role in the long delays.

Any negotiator will acknowledge that having leverage is to your advantage. In this situation, the only company wielding any power in those talks was the cable provider. In fact, it would seem that relations between HBO and Comcast had become very one-sided, with HBO feeling they needed to offer their catalog directly to consumers. If HBO can be successful with their upcoming streaming package, they will have another fight on their hands as Comcast is also America’s largest internet provider (in subscriptions).

It can further be surmised that Comcast is strong arming Microsoft for stuff, be it discounted licensing, user information, new technology, and vastly greater things beyond the scope of public knowledge.

What were they going to extort Roku or Sony for? Bankruptcy & Walkmans?

Verizon Lumia ICON to Cricket Moto G

With Verizon’s increasingly aggressive ETF policies, now is a good a time as ever to test which network is good for the exit strategy when the contracts are up in late January. I signed up 5 lines of service on Cricket for $100 per month (including tax). Cricket now has several budget phones available. The Lumia 635 is free after rebate, but why settle for subpar? The Moto G LTE goes right now for a $25 a piece.

SPECS
Both devices share identical processors, LTE radios, and basic 5 MP rear cameras. But the Moto G demolishes the Lumia in other categories. 720p vs 480p screen, 1.0 vs. 0.5 GB RAM, a notification light, a front facing camera, & expedient OS updates from Motorola make $26 an easy difference to spend. Even with the Snapdragon 400 processor on Android, I’m able to perform some tasks more quickly and efficiently than my current device, the high class Lumia ICON running the far-from-optimized Windows Phone 8.1 Preview. The ICON’s 20 MP with mechanical stabilization will be sorely missed.

NETWORK
Cricket’s network sucks like the depressurized vacuum of space. Good speeds register at 2 Mbps down and .5 Mbps up. Those are facts. Still, I am not the guy huddled in the corner, watching YouTube. 2/.5 Mbps is enough to pull emails. My house pulls 120 down, and about 30 up and that’s where I need the speed.

UNLOCKING & SWITCHING AGAIN
Another huge plus, factory unlock service for Motorola devices is fairly inexpensive at about $6 per phone. However, Cricket will unlock the phones for free after three months, about the time needed to maintain active lines in order for the $400 in rebates to clear. If the speed is still too slow, than switching carriers is simple as swapping a SIM card. Good analogy?

MICROSOFT’s HARDWARE WOES
Bashing on Verizon is fun, but I’m still a Microsoft fan. Despite many crap decisions over the years, I’m confident they’ll be able to pull through. I still use Windows & Xbox One. My favorite game remains Halo multiplayer regardless of the idiot VP recently put in charge of 343 and the Halo franchise at large. Ultimately, Halo MCC’s unforgivable launch made me realize the detriments of supporting a company through the lens of childhood nostalgia. Windows is a great OS. Xbox is lots of fun. Office is par none. Yet the inability of the software giant to competently deliver modern hardware at a reasonable price point should not be supported, whether their AI is named Mickey Mouse, Cortana, or the White Ranger. It’s been nearly six years, and the standard resolution on laptops remains a sickening 768p.
Microsoft needs to get their HW partners on board or stop licensing Windows, and do it themselves. They took the wrong approach entirely. Phone market is replete with competitors including LG and Samsung. MS should have left this market alone and let the Korean screen tech giants compete. Traditional Windows devices are not the Korean’s bread and butter. MS needed and still needs to spin those turbines towards ensuring Full HD devices running Windows OS are released and reasonably priced. I’m unaware of how to mend the relationships with OEMs but they need to think of something and fast because 768p didn’t suffice in 2009, and it certainly doesn’t cut it now. Windows OS is where Windows thrives.*

*Acceptable hardware required.

Cloud Gaming: Can inventive mathematics overcome infrastructure woes?

Shortly ensuing yesterdays’ post on current-gen console lifespans, Microsoft published the findings of a research project named DeLorean. Contained within, exist a set of algorithms and computations to proliferate the possibility of cloud gaming to a realistic point.

According to WPCentral’s Sam Sabri,

“Most gamers deem the responsiveness of their game unacceptable when the latency in exceeds the 100ms threshold. Something that isn’t that uncommon with most cellular and Wi-Fi networks.”

While this certainly holds true in multiplayer situations, the latency being referenced is external data. Input from a controller is a data point previously unaffected by network latency due to the direct connection between controller and machine. However with cloud gaming, controller inputs are being sent to a machine over internet wires, switches, and routers spanning several thousand miles. The computation occurs there and the video stream is sent back along the same path. Typical latency from Comcast Miami to the nearest Microsoft server farm is about 50 ms. Remember that the video stream also has to come back along that same path, adding another 50 ms, combining for 100 ms of delay. 1/10 of a second hardly seems like much time, but in a world where games render at 60 frames per second, the difference is quantifiable.

DeLorean will attempt to overcome these challenges by using some very sophisticated mathematics to speculate and predict what the person behind the controller will do. DeLorean’s equations explained in the research paper are above the comprehension of society at large, but it would appear that the following researchers and institutions do.

Kyungmin Lee, David Chu, Eduardo Cuervo, Johannes Kopf, Sergey Grizan, Alec Wolman, & Jason Flinn

Univeristy of Michigan, Microsoft Research, Siberian Federal University

Whether DeLorean’s theoretical models will hold up across a vast and varied broadband infrastructure remain to be seen. Cloud gaming has tried before and failed miserably due to infrastructure woes. OnLive launched was founded in 2003 and released to market in 2009. The service was widely panned as a laughable attempt to create a new market. Press demos were conducted very close to OnLive’s data center and real-use scenarios did not hold up nationwide.

But it’s currently 2014 and much has changed. Average internet speeds are faster. Pipes have been upgraded to carry higher capacities. Heck, even Netflix and YouTube are streaming content in 4K. And game companies are ready to take the tumble once more. Sony has already built out a cloud gaming platform called Playstation Now. Early reviews of the beta indicate acceptable performance on industrial fiber connections. Other reviewers on more basic residential connections echo discontent with responsiveness.

Theoretically, DeLorean seems like a great idea. But even with the inclusion of these advanced algorithms, latency issues tied to cloud gaming will continue to plague it’s relevance until broadband infrastructure is upgraded. 

Source Microsoft Research via Neowin via WPCentral