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Microsoft readies x86, Nvidia-based rival to PlayStation

MSX reborn?

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In an attempt to widen industry support for Windows CE, Microsoft has begun development work on a games console reference design based on the PDA-oriented OS. According to Next Generation magazine, the console will be driven by a 500MHz Intel CPU... or maybe an AMD Athlon... or perhaps... well let's just say the point appears to be open. Handling the graphics side of the equation will be Nvidia's recently announced GeForce 256 chip. Microsoft is naturally keeping schtumm on the machine, allegedly codenamed X-Box, but Next Generation said sources had told it that the box would shop in the Autumn 2000 timeframe. The source also implied that the machine is aimed at PC vendors who want to break into the console market. How many of them will want to do so remains to be seen. Central to the X-Box's success will be compatibility with shipping PC titles. Given the machine's basis on the x86 platform and its use of a major graphics platform -- the GeForce 256 will have been shipping in volume long before X-Boxes do -- Microsoft could ensure compatibility simply by building in a WinCE version of Direct X. That would allow companies like Dell and Gateway to ship X-Box-derived products without having to worry about there being a sufficient volume of titles out there to appeal to buyers -- the number one problem that most console vendors face when they ship a new machine. Lack of titles is arguably what limited the appeal of Nintendo's N64 and appears to be doing the same for Sega's Dreamcast, itself WinCE-based. Given that X-Box, if it does indeed ship in an Autumn 2000 timeframe, will be right up against the PlayStation II -- a very well established brand -- a possibly established Dreamcast and maybe Nintendo's Dolphin project, it's going to need all the help it can get to get off the ground. Big name PC vendor support would be help indeed, and it's not hard to imagine Dell, Gateway, et al thinking that X-Box might well be a way into the console biz. The snag, though, is we've been here before. X-Box is decidedly reminiscent -- in platform terms, if not specification -- of Microsoft's previous attempt to dominate games computing: MSX. MSX was Bill Gates' early 80s attempt to create a unified home computing platform based around Z80 CPU Microsoft Color Basic (until that point used only by Dragon 32 and Tandy Color Computer owners). Microsoft Basic of course also shipped with the original Intel 8088-based IBM PC. Gates sold the MSX idea to half a dozen Japanese consumer electronics giants who wanted in on the US and home computer booms of the early 80s. Machines, all of them compatible, were launched, but utterly failed to take off, partially because they came too late to dent the very well established brands already in the market -- Commodore, Atari, Sinclair, Acorn, etc -- brands driven by the support of highly tribal 14-year-old boys. Another factor in their failure, surprisingly, was that they were too expensive - a home computer price war coincided with the rollout, and the Japanese companies weren't flexible enough to cut their prices to be competitive. In the late 90s, the only difference is that we're talking about games consoles not home computers -- though Sony and Sega's attempts to embrace the Net and support computer-oriented peripherals suggest the difference is rapidly blurring. From what we know so far, X-Box is simply a stripped down PC lacking most of the ancillary chips that make consoles much better games machines than PCs at even a nearish price. Like Apple's ill-fated Pippin -- a stripped down Mac lacking most of the ancillary chips that... -- we suspect X-Box may not be much of a runner. ®

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