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E3 2006 Preview: The showdown between consoles and PCs

E3 2006 Preview: The showdown between consoles and PCs
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Joining Sony's Vaio and Intel's Viiv in the Weird Names Hall of Fame is Nintendo's Wii.

The number three player in consoles, Nintendo, successfully stole its share of the spotlight last week, with the strange yet somehow intriguing naming choice for its "Revolution" console. Was "Wii" just a ploy for attention that'll burn out by the end of the week? Michael Cai doesn't think so; in fact, he believes Nintendo's move may have a streak of brilliance to it. "Since Nintendo wanted to expand the gamer audience to focus more on the moderate, casual gamers, and re-invigorate the gaming-as-a-family experience anyway, it might as well end up being a smart move."

Cai's reasoning goes like this: Only hard-core gamers knew of the existence of the "Revolution" console by that name anyway. The Wii name introduces Nintendo's console to its true targeted market, which is made up more of parents. For them, he said, Nintendo may need to distinguish itself as more of a family-friendly brand anyway, and the "Wheee!" notion sounds more like a roller-coaster ride than something blowing up. Sure, the console was a revolution of sorts when it was first announced, to those to whom it was announced. "But casual gamers, and the moms who might make these decisions to buy that platform, might not even know. They might never have heard of ['Revolution']," he remarked. For them, the former code name might not have given the proper message.

Besides, Cai threw in for the heck of it, the Wii is no longer a particularly revolutionary console, especially from a hardware standpoint, stacked up against Xbox 360 and PS3. Perhaps - just perhaps - the little remote controls could be considered "revolutionary," but even the concept itself smacks of war and revolt and all the things that moms won't invest in. "Why would you want to call it 'Revolution,'" he asked hypothetically, "if your technology is much less?"

Can Xbox 360 continue on cruise control?

With Microsoft's Xbox 360 selling more units in the last quarter (1.7 million) than it did over the holidays (1.5 million), manufacturers now producing on a more efficient schedule, and with supplies now evening out, the first next-generation console is well on its way to normalization. It was a spectacular premiere after all, just delayed by several roadblocks. But with two big acts that could upstage it, Microsoft has to put together something fabulous - especially for its Tuesday morning rollout event - that will keep Xbox 360 in the hunt, and in the news.

What would that be? Having Microsoft's own publicists report on what the rumors are surrounding their client's own console, is a bit like watching an infomercial on the energy benefits of clean, natural coal, produced by the coal producer's association. On the one hand, it plants just the right seeds in customers' minds; on the other, it doesn't really give those seeds what they need to germinate. Is it real, or is it wishful thinking?

The publicists are using the phrase "Console Evolution," though the description the publicists are giving is an indicator that Microsoft isn't upgrading the console itself, so much as adding peripherals to it. The big-ticket items appear to be a likely HD DVD player and an add-on camera. But here is where Microsoft could find itself between a box and a hard place. Peripherals such as these might give an Xbox 360 "More Valuable Than Platinum" edition a feature set more in tune which what's expected for PS3, whose built-in Blu-ray player was confirmed long ago. Yet with the company's Live bundle (which features a year's subscription to Xbox Live) already selling for around $600, Microsoft doesn't have much room to play, if you will, with the price of an even more feature-rich bundle, and still remain price-competitive with PS3...unless that $500 mark was a ruse.

Microsoft could possibly mark down, or even eliminate, subscription fees for certain tiers of Xbox Live service; but what would that mean for customers who have already purchased subscriptions? Even so, if a new HD DVD-endowed bundle (with the HD DVD player hanging off the side, by the way) ends up selling for over $900, what could historically have been written up as the lead act in the next-generation console battle, could play out as a failed follow-up act for HD DVD.

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