What might universal Xbox One apps actually mean?

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A bit of news that’s going around right now is The Verge’s report on Microsoft opening up the SDK for “universal” apps on Xbox One to basically everyone, along with turning the retail console into a dev kit. I personally think that’s a pretty big deal, for reasons I may have already gone over some time ago. In a way it’s a step forward for game consoles in general that could only have come from Microsoft (out of the current big three players).

From Microsoft’s recent Windows 10 presentation we already knew Windows Store apps were coming to Xbox in some fashion. We just didn’t know how. For some reason I assumed a switch would be flipped that would allow you to just run existing universal apps on Xbox following some work to get them to operate with controllers. What actually seems to be happening is, at some point later this year any little guy who can afford an Xbox One (and maybe some small licensing fee) will start being able to develop apps for it — that will probably then run on the other Windows 10 devices. I think this takes Xbox a step closer to where some might say it should be — a living room extension of Windows. At the very least it could bring it to a state more like iOS but with a pre-existing well-established game market.

The obvious advantage I’ve always been talking about is over time it will explode the number of software and media-consumption features of the Xbox One compared to other consoles. Until now if you wanted something like HBO Go or Plex on a game console you had to wait until the console manufacturer entered into some kind of deal with the creator of that service to develop the app. This is why so many of these boxes — including consoles, only have a few and still have spotty media capabilities. Just look at the PS4’s media and operating system functionality compared to the PS3’s right now, the newer system is way behind. Admittedly, Xbox has already been far more prolific in getting media streaming, including even MKV compatibility.

Meanwhile your iPhone or Android device has every kind of app on it because Apple and Google just let almost anyone develop apps whenever they want. I already solved the living room problem on my end by hooking a full-blown Windows computer to my TV (and then you have that upcoming Intel Windows 10 HDMI stick), but over the course of the next year or so we might see an environment where you can basically download every kind of app onto your Xbox.

I can only barely imagine what kinds of apps you’ll eventually see built specifically for a device like a game console. Web browsers like Firefox and Chrome could show up. Someone would probably eventually make a podcast app. You would probably eventually get apps for any streaming service that isn’t already available on the system. If anybody thinks it makes enough sense you might even get apps for things like email or slideshows, maybe even photo and video editing. Dropbox seems like an easy thing to assume which would be just one more way to get files and media onto the system. What if Valve or some third party created an app to stream PC games to the Xbox? A big part of The Verge’s report says you’ll be able to have audio from apps playing in the background while you play a game, so that means things like SoundCloud or Pandora while playing your games.

One of the most tempting possibilities however is for emulators, and that depends entirely on how Microsoft decides to run the store. You don’t really see emulators on iOS because of Apple’s strict control of what software get’s signed for its mobile devices. Microsoft could very well take a similar stance for apps on Xbox One despite its somewhat more open stance for Windows apps. The legality of emulators on desktop computers is well-established, but not so much on game consoles. I could definitely imagine Nintendo seeing such a feature on Xbox One as an affront to the Wii U’s Virtual Console and suing the heck out of Microsoft for it. Microsoft might want to lock out emulators before even having to deal with such an eventuality. I think ultimately this would have a negligible impact on Xbox One hardware sales, but being the first console that openly let’s you run old ROMS would still be a milestone.

Ultimately, this potentially moves Xbox into a sort of middle area between a closed game console and an actual Windows system. It would be pretty neat if one day we actually had a powerful TV device as simple as a console but as open as the PC, but I think democratic app development with a small licensing gateway is probably where consoles should be today. This might become a significant strength for Xbox over PlayStation, and Sony will be extremely slow to create a similar environment of its own, if it ever can.

I’m not even going to start thinking about this kind of approach applied to game development, which would be another step closer to softening the gatekeeping on consoles, which might be their greatest weakness right now.

BULLETS:

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