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Dvorak: Xbox 360 to the Rescue

Real progress in desktop computing always stems from gaming.

Even the invention of spreadsheets was a sort of game, and all the display technologies were boosted by gamers. But in the mid- to late 1990s, the scene began to focus purely on business computing, giving it a largely undeserved leadership role.

As a result, the innovative game coders and freethinkers were spun off into their own world. But they were the ones who were needed to make grand schemes of integration and convergence work.

The business dudes thought that good ideas would magically work themselves out through free-market forces. That didn't mean savvy game developers; it meant outsourcing to India. The result is a stagnant, half-dead gaming business.

Luckily Microsoft's Xbox 360 crew, and other game developers, are working on cool stuff that will cross over to PCs. When game developers retake their rightful place on top of the hill of progress, we'll all be better off. Needless to say, I am impressed by the Xbox 360.

The Xbox 360 explores new menu structures with a unique and pleasant GUI. One often-overlooked element that the Microsoft games group brings to the party is its unique GUIs that are unlike the folder/desktop metaphor that Xerox and Apple developed.

Though Microsoft adopted this "folders" model for Windows, the company also developed many other interfaces, especially during the CD-ROM era. Some of these are phenomenal and are still being explored by the gaming folks.

One of the PC industry's challenges has always been integration. The Media Center PC has so much functionality that it may be overwhelming for users who can't figure how to turn off underlining or Caps Lock while typing in Microsoft Word.

The commercial failure of the Media Center PC and other initiatives is generally because of their increasing complexity.

Any hardware or software product will, over time, incorporate new features rather than improve old features. Inevitably, the learning curve becomes too steep for new users. Thus, the product is usable only by longtime users.

This is happening with Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator and with some smartphones. It has also happened with many "hard-core" video games. The term hard-core reveals their market: people who have played the earlier versions to an extreme.

The temptation to add more and more features to a product — "creeping featurism" — seems irresistible. Adding this and that is a lot easier than fixing complicated or obscure features.

This is the checklist approach to development: Once a feature is added and checked off the list, it is time to move to the next. It doesn't matter that the feature is incredibly difficult to use.

This is a problem with clones of Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. The clones have all the features on the checklist, but try to use them or even find them!

The best Word clones should be either functionally identical to Word — keystroke for keystroke — or totally simplified. But making software easier is harder than simply adding features.

This brings me back to the Xbox 360, which has incorporated complex new features but seemingly has not overshot the user's abilities with hard-to-use features. In fact, I have not seen a hardware/software system this well thought out for a decade or more.

But what's remarkable is the potential for the Xbox to open the market for the Media Center PC by becoming a middleman or coordinator.

Microsoft personnel are rightly proud of how the Xbox 360 (which operates in conjunction with either regular TV or HDTV) can, when hooked up to a network, function as a Media Center PC if there's also an actual Media Center PC on the network.

I'm sure not everyone sees the importance of this.

Media Center PCs have not done well for a number of reasons. Nobody wants one whirring away in the family room. Most people prefer to have one or two PCs in places where work is done.

To make matters worse, game consoles, which are usually kept in the TV or family room, chew up connectors, and it's miserable to hook and unhook jacks constantly from the TV sound and video system.

It seems as if the Xbox 360 can be plugged in like any game console and act as a Media PC proxy without the inconvenience. This is genius, and the best example of integration I have seen.

Note that this came from game designers and not from business software developers. The sooner we realize that creativity is centered in the game business, the better off the entire industry will be.

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