How History Can Shape Expectations For The Next Consoles

Everything we know about the histories of Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo can tell us what we can expect from their new consoles.

This is no crazy theory about two PC’s taped together, and this isn’t speculation. These are facts, because when considering the next offerings from the Big Three, it’s the companies’ track records that can give us the best clues about what to expect.

It’s mostly common knowledge by now that Nintendo started out as a company that produced playing cards, but few would pin that date as far back as 1889. It was then that the company started producing playing card sets in Kyoto, Japan, and continued to do so up until the creation of several light gun games in the 1960s. The company entered the console market in 1974 by securing the rights to distribute the Magnavox Odyssey in Japan, and followed with their own console (the Color TV Game) in 1977.

During their tenure as a console manufacturer, Nintendo has positioned itself as a “family friendly” company, and especially in terms of marketing it doesn’t seem like that’s going to change any time soon. Even though Nintendo is adding more mature titles to the Wii U library (like Batman: Arkham Asylum), new commercials for the system still seem focused on more family-oriented games like Sing Party and Lego City: Undercover.

These games may not be to everyone’s liking, but in terms of hardware the consoles are historically very reliable; the functionality of a Nintendo console is rarely in question. That kind of durability combined with an innovative control scheme went on to make the Nintendo DS the best-selling handheld of all time, and for similar reasons the Nintendo Wii remains the best-selling home console of this generation.

Looking at the upcoming generation of systems, Nintendo’s weakness seems to be online functionality. Historically, only the 3DS handheld system and the Wii have had any online capabilities, and the features weren’t as robust as those on competing consoles. The Wii U will be connected, but mainly to bring you other entertainment in the form of streaming media. As of this writing, Nintendo still has not detailed exactly how the online play or online shopping options will work.

Take-home lesson: Nintendo’s Wii U will find a large audience, but not one that absolutely needs online functionality. If you and your family are looking for a reliable, competent system that will cater to nostalgia (there will always be Mario) and the convenience of streaming media (Netflix, TV, etc.) while offering a wide breadth of titles, the Wii U will be for you.

Sony has been manufacturing devices of various ilk since the early 1950s and clearly has the best track record of any hardware manufacturer. Before Apple, it was the company that revolutionized how we listen to music, having brought the world the Walkman in 1979 and the first compact disc player in 1982. Combined with the introduction of Blu-ray technology and myriad televisions, the company’s history is rich in diverse hardware.

Sony’s entrants into the home gaming market, the PlayStation brand of consoles, have all been well-received. The most recent of these, the PlayStation 3, also functions with Sony’s own Blu-ray technology, giving most users a significant upgrade in their movie viewing experience. Additionally, streaming video options like Netflix and Hulu make the PlayStation 3 the perfect “one box” solution for many households.

While the hardware itself has not been problematic for Sony, the PlayStation 3’s online capability has. Though the new update to the PlayStation Network (PSN) store – live last week in the U.S. – appears to be pleasing many customers, Sony’s network has been the victim of criticism for a variety of reasons, including a wide-scale compromise of customers’ personal information.

One crucial thing to remember is that this is completely new territory for Sony, as prior to this it’s never had to design an infrastructure capable of handling these kinds of online operations and transactions. With recent changes it’s clear that Sony has learned a hard lesson, and while the hacking concerns won’t soon be forgotten, customers can expect the next console’s online capabilities to be a significant leap forward.

Take-home lesson: Sony’s next console will be a typically robust and reliable piece of hardware worthy of the brand, but the company has the most to prove with regards to online functionality. The last year has shown remarkable growth for Sony in this area: security has not seemed to be an issue, and PlayStation Plus has blossomed as it continues to offer discounts and even free games. Combined with the power of Blu-ray technology, Sony could be positioned to be the preferred “one box” solution for home entertainment.

Since its inception in 1975, Microsoft has been extraordinarily well-respected for its software (including Xbox Live), and Windows still accounts for over 90% of all operating systems in use in 2012. Relatively new to the company is hardware manufacturing, which only began in 1982 to make a mouse specifically to work with the DOS version of Microsoft Word. Called The Hardware Manufacturing Group, it is also responsible for the Xbox gaming consoles and the new Surface tablets, the latter of which only one model is currently available.

It’s the Xbox 360 that owns the spotlight with regards to manufacturing, though unfortunately it’s mostly newsworthy due to its failure rate. While Microsoft has not released the official failure rate (rumored at one point to be as high as 54%), it has stated that the number of failures was “unacceptable,” and ultimately in 2007 went on to offer extended warranties to fix the affected units at a cost of over $1 billion to the company.

Two years later in 2009, a SquareTrade survey stated that the failure rate for the Xbox 360 was below 24%, also noting that the “Red Ring of Death” problem seemed to be “abating.” The same survey documented a 10% failure rate for the PlayStation 3 and roughly a 3% failure rate for the Nintendo Wii.

Microsoft’s relatively short experience with manufacturing hardware may be a contributing factor in the failure rate of the Xbox 360, but does that mean that its next console will fall victim to the same problems?

For some that may be a good reason to temper excitement for the new console, but it isn’t likely. Microsoft is a smartly run company, and the Xbox 360 has quietly been undergoing revisions markedly improving not only the “Red Ring of Death” problems but also cooling, memory, and general performance issues.

Take-home lesson: Microsoft has proven its deftness at handling every component of online functionality, from playing and purchasing to media streaming. While the revisions in the Xbox 360 have been promising, it’s Microsoft’s format choice that might be key in determining its success. If Microsoft wants to compete to be the preferred set-top box, it would (laughably) have to go through Sony to license Blu-ray technology. The only other choices are a soon-to-be antiquated DVD format or opting for digital-only transactions, so your choice may have to be based on that and your prioritization of online play.

It’s clear that things are about to change drastically in the console world. Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft are each in a very unique position heading into the next console cycle, which effectively starts November 18 with the release of Nintendo’s Wii U. We’ll find out then if Nintendo can deliver on its ambitions for the console, and not long after we should start to hear details on the next entries from Sony and Microsoft. Microsoft has the most incentive to change, given the potential format conundrum, but Sony could perfect their advancements over the last year and release a powerhouse.

As a consumer you’ll have some tough questions to answer, and some fine lines will have to be drawn. Is the online component of a new console important to you, or are you more interested in making your next console purchase the “go to” box for every sort of entertainment? Do you want family friendly games, or are you more interested in realism? How important is the crispness of Blu-ray to you as a consumer? Would a digital-only future concern you?

Depending on what’s unveiled in the coming months, the answer still lies partly in the histories of Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft. As the companies fight for relevance and dominance amidst a burgeoning independent development scene deeply-rooted in the PC market, everything is on the line. It’s now become more important than ever to look at what these companies are historically capable of delivering.