Celebrating 15 Years of Xbox

Posted on November 14, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Xbox, Xbox 360, Xbox One with 16 Comments

Celebrating 15 Years of Xbox

“The Rock” and Bill Gates introduce the original Xbox. “No one cares what you think, Bill.”

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.

 

Premium Comments (10) Comments (6)
Elevate the Conversation!

Join Thurrott Premium to enjoy our Premium comments.

Premium member comments on news posts will feature an elevated status that increases their visibility. This tab would allow you to participate in Premium comments with other premium members. Register to join the other Premium members in elevating the conversation!

Register or Subscribe
10 Comments
Sort by Votes | Date
  1. 1 | Reply
    Narg Alpha Member #420 - 2 weeks ago

    I still liked those original big Xbox controllers.  :)

  2. 0 | Reply
    EnterMegatron99 Alpha Member #189 - 2 weeks ago

    I still have the OG Xbox and play it occasionally as I'm trying to play through some rare titles.  I have the HipGear Bluetooth controllers and the xbox still works perfectly.   Sure the graphics aren't stellar anymore, but for me, I still enjoy it.

    My Halo3 ltd ed. 360 is pretty much non-functional now with the RROD after a couple minutes...but its in perfect condition.

    We have 2 Xbone's, they never get used except to watch TV.  I played Lara Croft, completed the game and never looked at any of the DLC.  I've not had any inkling to play another game.

  3. 0 | Reply
    Matt Lohr Alpha Member #698 - 2 weeks ago

    The 360 was my first console since the Atari 2600. Oh, the halcyon days of Gears 1 and GRAW! I miss those blades; my perception of Xbox was permanently damaged when Microsoft arbitrarily replaced those.

  4. 0 | Reply
    Belralph Alpha Member #357 - 2 weeks ago

    I mainly remember people buying up consoles and flipping them. My friend and I bought ours pretty close to Thanksgiving at a Curcuit City in southern Calif. There was about 10 units in stock, we took two and the guy in front of use in line to check out had 5-6. We loaded up with the extended store warranty and said he was going to put them on Ebay and double his money.

    To this day I still have the DVD-HD external drive that I use once in awhile when I need a DVD drive.

     I somehow never got the RRD though most of my friends did. I think I've owned each model since having just recently moved to the XBO S. I like it but kind of bummed to replace the huge power brick with more mass of crap for the kinetic adapter. They should just give it native voice command support or let you plug in a webcam.

  5. 0 | Reply
    ponsaelius Alpha Member #1328 - 2 weeks ago

    The main problem with the Xbox One was the launch. The console was pitched as a TV device and not a games console. Plus they did this "always on" internet connectivity and effectively pushed people towards digital downloads at a time when second hand games and trading in was a significant market. Digital download is still more expensive than buying a disc from Amazon and having it shipped to you!

  6. 0 | Reply
    wolters Alpha Member #390 - 2 weeks ago

    After the Atari 2600 and Colecovision, I strictly went computer only gaming. Commodore 64 and then Amiga. When the Amiga started to fall be hind in gaming, I went PC and never really looked back. Because I was such an Atari fan, I picked up the Jaguar in the mid 90's and actually enjoyed the few really good titles on it (Alien Vs. Predator, Tempest 2000.) Then, I went to Dreamcast because I saw the AWESOME NFL 2K game and just have to have it. Digressing, I still think the NFL 2K series was much better than Madden. One thng I loved about the Dreamcast was the ability to hack it without much work. I remember the CD's I burned to play emulators on it.

    And yes, I've traveled up the XBOX route too. Currently on XBOX One and holding out for Scorpio. And I am one of the handful that still likes the Kinect. 

  7. 0 | Reply
    awright18 Alpha Member #405 - 2 weeks ago

    Nice homage to Xbox.  I actually thoroughly enjoyed the original Xbox. The main reason was a lot of co-op multiplayer games, and multiplayer Halo.  Xbox was what brought many of my friends together to try to kill each other or some aliens of some sort.  It was a great time.  The Xbox 360 was also a pretty awesome console, of course I played many hours of Call of Duty Modern Warfare on that machine, as well as several other excellent games.  I don't think when they launched the original Xbox anyone thought it would be competitive, but they at least, in my eyes, gained a big part of the market that they still own.  I think most people were skeptical because the console wasn't created by a traditional console Game vendor like Sega, or Nintendo.  I hope Microsoft can try to find markets like this with relatively few players and introduce some awesome consumer tech in the future, oh and be able to market it.  I think the lesson that we as Microsoft fans keep learning over and over, is even if you have the best device available, marketing will make or break your sales. 

  8. 0 | Reply
    FreeJAC Alpha Member #1723 - 2 weeks ago

    "It also includes a Ultra High Definition Blu-Ray disc drive, un-like the PS4."

    Fixed it for ya, because trolling Sony over not including UHD Blu-ray capabilities with their "4K Pro" console never gets old.  I asked a Best Buy manager about the sales of UHD Blu-ray Discs in store the other day. He said they were brisk since the launch of the Xbox One S. I also saw an ad recently for a Sony PlayStation Pro which included a 4K UHD movie as part of the deal. ROFL!

    Outstanding articles like this one is why I pay for Thurrott Premium. :)

     

  9. 0 | Reply
    Patrick3D Alpha Member #994 - 2 weeks ago

    One minor side-note to the original Xbox or rather Xbox Live, it got a lot of girls into videogames due to its inclusion of online chat. I have 2 female cousins that went from zero interest in videogames, to "OMG, I NEED an Xbox for Christmas!" I've spoken with several female colleagues around the same age that had the same feelings towards the Xbox. No idea what led them to discovering the Xbox but the ability to socialize while playing games got them hooked.

  10. 0 | Reply
    Awhispersecho Alpha Member #1649 - 2 weeks ago

    I actually think it's amazing how right MS has gotten the Xbox compared to everything they can't seem to figure out. I had a Dreamcast and PS2 at the time the original Xbox came out. The Dreamcast was a great system, so many good games but the Xbox was different. Halo changed console gaming, and then there were games like Panzer Dragoon Orta and Oddworld Strangers Wrath, which was awesome by the way. The system had some serious power and you felt like you were playing something that was about to really change console gaming even if you were exactly sure how.

    Then there was the 360. Had an original, then bought an Elite, then the Halo 4 console. I think the 360 may be the best home console of all time. they got everything right with it. The games, Xbox Live, it just all came together. Funny story about the red ring. My Elite got a red ring but it didn't happen every time at first. So I called their support number they had set up specifically for the red ring and the woman told me that they could not repair it for me unless it happened every time. So I asked her, "so if I can get it to happen repeatedly while I'm on the phone with you, you will be able to arrange a repair" she replied yes and stayed on the phone with me another 15-20 minutes as I repeatedly turned it off and on until the red ring was consistent. Pretty cool.

    And now the Xbox One. I bought the Elite console with the Elite controller and bought an additional Elite controller. I really like it though I'm not using it much at all as I have moved to almost exclusively gaming on PC. Actually kind of excited for Scorpio though. Having something close to the power of a good gaming PC would get me back into console gaming a little more again. That and Halo of course. I am hoping they have VR solution available for it as well.

     Man, I could really get into a historical video game console discussion. I still have all my consoles and games going back to the Intellivision, boxed, complete and in like new condition. Been collecting for a long time. I did sell a few over the years and I'm now thinking of selling the whole bunch but so many memories tied up in them all. But yeah, as someone who thinks MS is a disaster at this point and is losing faith in them and patience with them on a daily basis, I am amazed at how awesome their consoles and the gaming experience on them has been. Job well done as far as Xbox is concerned.