Remember those old Apple ads? “I’m a Mac,” says chillaxed everyman Robert Webb; “And I’m a PC,” drones corporate mega-clone David Mitchell. Remember how easy it was – before Windows 8, Android, Samsung Galaxy and the demise of Blackberry – to tell which tech company was cool and which spent their evenings writing macros for Excel?
Well, with the ongoing rollout of Sony’s PS4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One – even though each comes incredibly close to the other in hardware terms – it’s been easier than it has been in years to imagine two directly competing bits of tech as completely distinct personalities. And they are very, very different.
If you’ve seen PS4’s “For the Players Since 1995″ ad, you’ll have an idea of the character they’re sketching. The PS4 is a teenage version of yourself, desperately straining to stay awake while you finish Gran Turismo or GTA, or that bit on Tomb Raider when you keep running out of oxygen. It has three priorities: gaming, gamers, games. Everything else is superfluous. If the PS4 were a human character, I imagine it played by Simon Pegg.
The Xbox One, on the other hand, won’t settle on games. It’s got drive, ambition; it wants to run your life. It thinks it’s everything Apple has achieved, and everything Microsoft wishes it could, Jobs and Ballmer Frankensteined into one terrifying anchorman of your daily life. “I’VE GOT EVERYTHING!!!” he screams. And that’s why he’s played by Charlie Sheen.
Simon Pegg and Charlie Sheen are supposedly locked in a “battle for your living room”. But I think these next-generation consoles suggest a much wider conflict than what you do on your sofa. Two sides are staking claims to our technological cultures – and we’ve no idea what that culture will look like by the end of this product cycle. On the one hand, we’re told that an all-in-one approach will take omni-channel entertainment under the remit of a single device. On the other hand, we’re told that do-it-all systems have run their course; that now it’s time for meaningful progress through uncompromising focus on the development of single applications.
The winner of Console Wars: Episode 4 will tell us a great deal about the direction of consumer tech. Is there an appetite for even more device mission creep, for systems that gradually subsume your various media streams? Or is the future about delivering single services extraordinarily well? Indeed, we’ve had a version of this debate already: would you rather read an ebook on something that does loads of stuff well (an iPad) or on something that does one thing extremely well (a Kindle)?
We’re being asked that question again. Would you rather play a game on an Xbox or a PS4? Do you buy into do-it-all swagger or obsessive attention to detail? Who would you rather have in your living room – Charlie Sheen? Simon Pegg? Both? Or neither?