15 years ago today, Microsoft launched its first Xbox console, upending the video game world.
I’m sure there will be many more detailed looks at the history of the platform. Here is what I remember.
The initial console—Xbox is short for “DirectX Box”—was designed as a way to bring Microsoft’s gaming technologies to life in a standalone appliance. But that wasn’t really the software giant’s first foray into designing a gaming platform.
Previous to the first Xbox, Microsoft created a software platform that shipped with the Sega Dreamcast video game console. Based on Windows CE, this platform included its DirectX graphics and sound technologies, and was designed to make it easy to port Windows games to the console.
It never took off in any meaningful way, and neither did the Dreamcast itself. So Microsoft began its Xbox efforts.
The first Xbox launched in 2001 and was basically just a PC in a box. Its now-lowly specs will bring a smile to your face: A 733 MHz Intel Pentium III processor, 64 MB of RAM, and an 8 GB (!) hard drive. Notably, Xbox was the first video game console to include a hard drive.
It also included an Ethernet port, which seemed forward-leaning at the time. But it gave Microsoft a distinct advantage over other consoles of the day when Xbox Live launched a year later.
The box itself was huge and unwieldy, as were its original bulbous (wired) controllers. But with the first of many abortive attempts to enter the Japanese market yielding a more reasonably-sized “S” (for smaller) controller, Microsoft began offering that new controller everywhere. And the “S” naming convention stuck: Both of the next two Xbox console generations included an “S” model.
I wasn’t hugely impressed by the first Xbox, which operated like old-school consoles, and thus basically didn’t have much of a Dashboard UI to speak of. What was available was green and black, and cryptic, like something from the Matrix movies. A key feature was its ability to play audio CDs.
I also wasn’t super-convinced that a console was the right place for the shooter games I preferred, though I liked Halo: Combat Evolved quite a bit, and probably played through the single player game several times. And Halo 2, released in 2004, was the first console shooter with a terrific multiplayer experience, in my opinion.
So it was with some interest that I followed the development of the much more impressive Xbox 360, the second Xbox console. In early 2005, I visited Microsoft’s Xbox team in Redmond, and was given a hands-on early peek at what they were planning.
I could tell it was going to be a big deal. But I also saw something that I might now consider prescient, given the reliability issues that the Xbox 360 later suffered from.
In May 2005, Microsoft had unveiled its plans for Xbox 360, and it showed off a sleek white console design that seemed like the sort of product Apple might develop. But the Xbox 360 development system I saw was two gigantic Power Mac towers linked together somehow. How, I asked, was Microsoft going to fit all that into the tiny white console it had shown off publicly?
The answer: We have people working on that.
The reality, alas, was that the Xbox 360’s massive processing capabilities—it was powered by a triple-core IBM Xenon processor, ATI Xenos graphics processor, 512 MB of RAM, and 20 GB hard drive—caused massive heat issues, even with a gigantic external power supply that was half the size of the console itself. And the Xbox 360, ultimately, was the most unreliable consumer electronics product ever shipped at this scale.
The problems were typically identified by the so-called “Red Ring of Death,” so named because the console used a “green ring of life” to indicate that it was up and running properly. In reality, this was a General Hardware Failure, which necessitated that the console by returned to Microsoft for repair, and I did so at least 7-8 times, sometimes twice for a single console. The problems were so bad that Microsoft extended the warranty and spent about $1 billion fixing consoles over a several year period.
Microsoft would eventually fix these issues over two subsequent console revisions—the hugely popular Xbox 360 S and then the more recent Xbox 360 E—but it rocketed to great success regardless. The 2005-2006 launch year saw some incredible games—Call of Duty 2, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfare, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and so on, and firmly established the Xbox 360 as a great home for shooters especially. So good, in fact, that I switched from PC gaming to Xbox 360 in 2005 and have never looked back.
Also helping matters was a vastly improved wireless controller, which was based on the original Xbox S controller, and a Dashboard that featured a “blades” UI that briefly seemed futuristic and well-designed. A more sophisticated New Xbox Experience arrived in 2008 with a panoramic Dashboard UI, and Xbox 360 was well-regarded as a media hub of sorts, despite the noise the console makes when used.
The Xbox 360 originally benefited by shipping one year before the PlayStation 3, and by being less expensive. (The less that’s said about an HD-DVD add-on, the better.) But both Microsoft and Sony were blindsided by Nintendo, whose Wii console outsold both by a wide margin. Microsoft’s response was to ship a Kinect motion-sensing peripheral in 2010 and to construct a Nintendo Mii-like Avatar system for Xbox Live.
It worked: Xbox console and Kinect sales surged that holiday period, and Kinect was briefly the fastest-selling consumer electronics product of all time. But the Kinect was technically problematic—it required a large room with great lighting, and even had issues “seeing” people with darker skin—and sales quickly cooled.
Given these developments, it is odd that Microsoft made an updated Kinect a requirement for its third-generation Xbox One console in 2013. And that in doing so, the Xbox One was $100 more expensive than the technically superior PlayStation 4, which shipped the same month. Less surprising is the outcome: The PS4 has thus far outsold Xbox One by a 2-to-1 margin, causing Microsoft to remove Kinect to cut costs and lower prices for consumers.
The Xbox One also marked a return to the big, bulky form factor of the original Xbox, though a recent Xbox One S revision is much more svelte and attractive. The system also returns to the original Xbox’s x86, PC-like innards, with a 1.75 GHz 64-bit AMD processor, 853 MHz AMD Radeon HD 7000 graphics processor, 8 GB of RAM, and 500 GB non-removable hard drive. It also includes a Blu-Ray disc drive, like the PS4.
The good news? So far, the Xbox One has proven to be much more reliable than the Xbox 360. And the new Xbox One S has now outsold the PS4 in the US and a few other key markets for the past 2-4 months (depending on market).
The Xbox One also features a superior wireless controller, a new multitasking Dashboard design (which has itself already been revved several times), and great voice control functionality for those who do have a Kinect. And the Xbox One S sports 4K video output (for discs and digital videos) and HDR capabilities (for games, discs, and digital video). Microsoft has also been working to closely integrate Xbox One with Windows 10 on the PC.
Looking ahead, Microsoft plans a further expansion of the Xbox One lineup with “Project Scorpio,” which will add 4K gaming and virtual reality (VR) opportunities.
To date, Microsoft has sold over 120 million Xbox consoles—24 million original Xbox, 80 million Xbox 360, and over 20 million Xbox One consoles so far—and has attracted about 50 million paying Xbox Live customers. Not too shabby for a company that is widely considered to not understand the consumer market.
For me, Xbox has become a staple of my daily entertainment diet, and I’m looking forward to that continuing into the 4K and VR gaming era that is now just unfolding. We’ve had a great 15-year run. And I’m looking forward to more.