By Colin Browne
Not since Atari, 20 years ago, has a credible games console come out of the United States. The challenge is coming however, and the Japanese won’t have it all their own way much longer. Not when the XBOX ships.
Microsoft may yet eat Sony alive. When Sony shipped the PlayStation 2 (PS2) games console in December, it greatly underestimated the demand for it. The product sold out around the world, and in the Middle East, allocation became something of a lottery. Reports say that Sony, which has sold around 100 million units of the original PlayStation, is only making 600,000 PS2 units per month, a rate which will see demand frustrated throughout the year.Sony is working on it—it isn’t about to allow customers to turn their backs—but stepping up production is no mean feat and no quick task. And when you consider that Sony’s original PlayStation averaged around 1,500,000 units per month, getting higher volumes out of the factory is a top priority. The problem is that there isn’t much time left. Microsoft showed off a prototype of its XBOX this weekend in Las Vegas and the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) which runs there every year, and … well, it is special. No doubt about it.The XBOX looks space age: raised ribs run across the black exterior of the console, giving it the look of a supercharged car stereo amplifier. The console is emblazoned with a large X with a raised, glowing, green signature XBOX "jewel" at its centre. The controller combines a sleek two-handed grip with more game-control buttons and triggers than any other game console. Extra-long controller cables (9.5 feet) stream from the back of the console and glow green from the inside.However, since Microsoft announced plans last year to build the XBOX, the big news has been what it will let gamers do, not what it will look like. XBOX is built around a custom-designed graphics chip capable of processing more than one trillion operations per second and providing at least three times the graphics performance of the newest generation of game consoles, Microsoft says. XBOX will also offer four game controller ports for easy multiplayer gaming and adding peripherals, a front-loading DVD tray, a multisignal audio-video connector for easy hook-up to televisions and home theatre systems, an Ethernet port for fast online gaming, an NVIDIA graphics processing unit (GPU), Intel 733 megahertz central processing unit (CPU), and an eight gigabyte hard drive.But it may not be the features of the XBOX—still nine months from actually shipping—or the difficulties Sony is having with manufacturing the PS2, which ultimately give XBOX the edge.For a consumer product to be successful, you need a lot of consumers to buy it. Microsoft isn’t slow to recognise this. Between now and the launch in September, the promotional budget for XBOX alone, will be a massive US$500 million. So even though the XBOX isn’t with us yet, it is likely to be the most talked-about product of the year. And that is a hard act to follow.