Imagine it’s Wednesday and the apocalypse has arrived. Whether it’s nuclear winter, zombie hordes, Captain Trips, Lucifer’s Hammer, or rabid mutant space lemurs from the planet after Saturn, it doesn’t matter; when it comes right down to it, the only thing standing between you and brain-munching obliteration at the hands of some irradiated, undead, flu-ridden, comet-flattened, shit-slinging man-ape-gone-wrong thing is the fact that you’ve got a stash of canned beans tucked away in your end-of-the-world bolthole, thereby allowing you to hide under the kitchen sink like a sissy until help arrives. You’ve got your trusty can opener, your spine, and half a diet Sunkist, and you figure you’ll just ride it out. A sound plan, I say…no; a brilliant plan.
Always stay put. That’s my motto. That, and “never
again mix beans with Ajax.” And “always put the lid down.”
The thing that makes this sure-fire survival stratagem possible isn’t actually the beans, it’s the can opener. After all, the beans aren’t in these new-fangled, pull-tab, pop-top, ooh-I-broke-a-nail, wus-boy cans — these are old-school cans, cans that require tools and possibly heavy machinery in order to open. Nossiree Jim, these are man cans. For men with wrists. So for the love of Stan Petrov, don’t lose that can opener, because without it you’re down to scarfing twist-ties and roach turds.
Microsoft wants to be more than just your can opener — they want to be your Swiss Army Knife of home entertainment. Between Blu-Ray, Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, Hulu, Xbox Video, Music, and the rumored TV service launching with the new Xbox (oh, and games — remember games?), they want you to fire up their slick black box on day one, and not turn it off again until it dies a smoking, gasping death, most likely on day 27. They want to rule your digital world, and I guess I can’t blame them for that; what I do blame them for is the way they want to get there.
I turned on my Xbox this evening and studied the Home screen (capitalized for clarity), which contains nine tiles. Three of them — the disc tray, My Pins, and Recent — are user-directed parameters, meaning they lead to activities chosen by you, Mr. and/or Miss, Mrs., or Ms. Stalwart Xbox Gamer. The other six are advertisements, usually captioned with at least some sort of imperative verb — buy, watch, rent, get, play, download, taste, slap, tickle — in an attempt to get you to fork over even more money than you did when you A) bought your Xbox, 2) bought games for it, and B) paid for an Xbox Live Gold subscription, which gives you access to all the stuff that Sony provides at no extra cost when you buy a PlayStation 3, like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and multiplayer gaming.
What if, like me, you’ve bought more than one Xbox over its seven-year life cycle? What if, like me, you’ve bought four Xboxes over that same span, and had another one replaced under warranty? What if, like me, you’ve spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on Xboxes, accessories, games, and downloadable content over the course of the last seven years, and what if, like me, you’re fed up to the tits of being told that you don’t spend enough money every single time that you turn on your Xbox?
Instead of using 66% of the 360’s Home screen to sell you more stuff, what if Microsoft used it to provide an entirely user-defined experience, including customizable backgrounds (not just downloadable themes at $3 each, thanks), and customizable tiles? What if they presented the Xbox not only as the Leatherman of the living room, but as a tool that is as much an expression of the user’s preferences as it is a vehicle for content delivery and sales? What if they got the sweet shivering fuck out of my way and let me use their box the way that I want to? Whenever I turn on the Xbox, I get the impression that it truly is their box, and I’m just paying them for the privilege of holding on to it for a while. This is never the case with any other device that I own.
Why do the Sony faithful keep coming back to lap at the spilled milk of mediocrity and incompetence, an allegation which includes but is not limited to a hacked network, and an unnecessarily difficult programming process? Why do people love their iPads, their iPhones, their Macs, and their Windows 7 PCs? I’ll bet it has a lot to do with the fact that each of these gadgets offers a user-defined experience, that the operating system permits a kind of “transference” to the device; these people don’t actually love the product, they love the part of the product that is themselves — from custom wallpaper, to custom ringtones, to the arrangement of icons, to the creation of folders, each device is a reflection of the user. This is not the case with the Xbox, as virtually nothing is customizable except the aforementioned theme; you’re going to use the Xbox in the way that Microsoft intended, or not at all.
Does this hurt the Xbox’s sales? Not even a little. It does prevent the bond that exists between users and customizable devices, as it keeps users at arm’s length by telling them, first off, that they’re not permitted to define their own experience on the console that they mistakenly thought was theirs, and second, that they don’t spend enough money, ever. Displaying advertising on all but two pages of the Xbox’s interface is like inviting someone to your home for dinner, making them listen to an Amway pitch while they eat, then charging them for the meal.
More than anything else, this is what causes most Microsoft products, whether hardware or software, to lack that elusive quality that I’ll call “soul,” for lack of a better word. When someone says that a product, or a company, or a song, or a movie has “soul” (or “heart”), what they usually mean is that they identify with it on some level, whether that’s through the recognition of a commonly held virtue (like clarity, simplicity, complexity, minimalism, etc.), or simply that it permits them to change it in some small way, and in doing so, make it their own. It’s not that the iPhone alone has soul, but that your music collection, your games, books, contacts, messages, photos, wallpaper, ringtones, and every single customizable attribute of the operating system lend to it a reflection of your deepest and most firmly held values (such as poignant songs, messages from loved ones, and photographs of your best friend skiing naked down a mountain of mayonnaise and Twinkies that one weekend in Reno). The Xbox does not do this; the Xbox expects you to assimilate to its preferences, instead of the other way around.
You know, kind of like a can opener.
To Be Sad With Anyone…
I said in the comments of last week’s post that I like the Xbox, and that I’d like to like the next Xbox, and that’s still true; it’s a great platform, one on which I’ve spent countless hours and nearly as much money over the last seven years. I’m still looking forward to learning the final specifications of the new Xbox, to seeing exactly what it will — and won’t — be able to do, but that’s about as far as it goes.
I like the Xbox, and we’ve had some great times together, but I just don’t love the Xbox.