Saturday 20 November 2021

Microsoft Xbox (2001)

Launched November 2001

Microsoft is a software company. It’s right there in the name. On the uncommon occasions that Microsoft has ventured into hardware, the results have been decidedly mixed from the failure of the Zune and KIN devices to the slow-burn success of the Surface to the best goddam computer mice ever made and I will die on that hill.

The Xbox line is certainly one of Microsoft’s more successful products, with a history spanning 20 years. But why does it even exist?

Original Microsoft Xbox (2001)
Original Microsoft Xbox (2001)

Back in 2001 there were three major players duking it out in the games console market. Sony’s PlayStation 2 was the boss… fighting against it was the Sege Dreamcast and Nintendo GameCube. These companies had been fighting it out for years, and although Sega had the head start with these sixth-gen consoles, it was Sony who was taking the biggest share of the market. The PS2 was more than just a simple games console, crucially it was a low-cost way of playing DVDs and music and the hardware was extremely capable. The Sega and Nintendo rivals were similarly versatile.

For Microsoft the concern was that this new generation of games console might start to compete with PCs for home users. The hardware was as good as or much better than contemporary Windows boxes, and prices in the $200 to $300 dollar range made them financially competitive too. Sure, Windows-based PCs were a popular platform for games as well, but you couldn’t always guarantee that your PC would be able to play the latest and greatest games if it was a few years old.

With the Xbox, Microsoft had the idea of taking the technologies and components that Windows already used. Underneath, the Xbox used a heavily modified version of Windows 2000 (the somewhat forgotten predecessor to Windows XP) and utilised the DirectX technology that Microsoft had built into Windows for gaming – DirectX giving the console the “X” in “Xbox”. Inside was a standard PC-style DVD drive and hard disk plus a customised version of the 733 MHz Intel Pentium III processor and an Nvidia GPU for graphics, combined with what seems today like a very modest 64MB of RAM.

The Intel CPU was a bit of a surprise for AMD who had originally been engaged to come up with a processor. In fact AMD would have to wait for the 3rd-gen Xbox – the Xbox One – before they supplied both the CPU and GPU, which they still do. The hardware overall was competitive, but the system itself was bulky because of the non-bespoke components. Even the original Xbox game controllers looked bulky and clumsy compared to the competition.

When launched, it was something of a success, helped a lot by the availability of HALO to play on it. The Xbox was also much stronger in terms on online gaming than rivals, coming in at a time when always-on broadband connections were starting to become popular. In the Microsoft-Sony-Sega-Nintendo race, the Xbox eventually came in second place in sales terms… way behind the PlayStation 2 and a little ahead of the GameCube.

Standard PC components added to the bulk
Standard PC components added to the bulk

Although it was a successful platform, Microsoft failed to make any money on the hardware – in the end they lost billions – but this was part of a bigger strategy including selling many of the games themselves and providing subscription services. In the end, games consoles didn’t take over from PCs… but to a large extent smartphones did. Probably in the end, Microsoft’s foray into gaming was unnecessary, but today’s ninth-generation consoles essentially leave just Sony and Microsoft standing.

Although obsolete by today’s standards, special edition Xboxes or ones with a large selection of games can sell for hundreds of pounds. There’s also a healthy modding scene for those who want to get more out of the hardware. Even twenty years on, the original Xbox has its fans.

Image credits:
Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons - CC0
Swaaya via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0

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