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Microsoft Xbox gaffe reveals cloudy arrogance

No, we're not all online all the time

Comment On Thursday afternoon a Twitter conversation between Adam Orth, creative director at Microsoft Studios, and a developer friend about the contentious issue of server-connected gaming sparked something of a storm after being posted on Reddit.

"Sorry, I don't get the drama around having an always-on console," Orth tweeted. "Every device is 'always on'. That's the world we live in. #dealwithit."

When it was pointed out to him that not everyone lives in a world where internet access is guaranteed – such as Janesville, Wisconsin or Blacksberg, Virginia – Orth's response was tactless, although one suspects accurate from his point of view.

"Why on earth would I live there?"

Orth has made it clear that the conversation was not Microsoft policy, just some joshing between friends. But in the opinion of this El Reg hack it's a little too close to the truth, in that is shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the timescale and scope of cloud computing for the masses.

His comments struck a chord because they come at a time when the mind of the gaming community is very focused on the shift to the cloud. The utter fiasco of SimCity's online launch showed that while software houses might love the idea of games that need an internet connection, users are less enamored – and crackers have shown there's no logical reason for the practice.

But despite user antipathy, "always on" gaming is set to become the norm. Orth's comments are merely a private statement about what the big gaming companies are presenting in an almost united front: gaming will be an online thing from now on.

That's good news for software providers, but not for users – and there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between those in gilded ivory internet bubbles and the real world. It's easy to see why.

Life in the fat-pipe lane

Every day large, white coaches sit briefly outside San Francisco Bay Area rapid-transit stops to pick up Googlers for their commute to the office. Despite tales of croissant and coffee services, these busses are simply conveyances with Wi-Fi so that Mountain View staffer can be online and ready to work when stuck in traffic.

Such services are not confined to Google, but for the people designing the next generation of computer systems, this is the world in which they live. You'll see the same thing in New York, Seattle, and Austin.

For the rest of us, life online is something of a harder slog. This hack used to think that the near-monopoly handed to British Telecom by the Thatcher government was bad, but in comparison, the cooperative oligarchy US telcos have stitched together makes me dream of internet speeds and prices European.

Much of the US is covered by shockingly low-speed wired internet connections obtained at a very high cost. Internet access has been carved up, and the nation that invented the internet is now lagging behind such comparative broadband paradises as Romania and Latvia in speed and cost.

On the mobile front, the situation is even worse. The US has overcome its mobile technology deficit behind Europe in the last decade and is now getting LTE installed with the best of them, but service is expensive and patchy. Tethering mobiles as Wi-Fi hotspots costs another pound of flesh, and unless you're well-off or corporate-sponsored, the bills can be ruinous.

Intermittent clouds, with signs of discouragement

This might sound like an anti-cloud rant, but it's not. Cloud computing looks to be a large part of the future of how we use technology, but we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are worrying signs that the industry isn't getting this.

For the gaming community that Orth's comments concerned, the issue is a critical one. If your game relies on you being logged in online, then the slightest break in connection can lose the benefits of some desperately skilled play. Even the most hardened atheist will pray to a god they don't believe in to recover from such a situation and save their progress.

But there's a wider issue at stake. Microsoft, Adobe, and others are actively pushing users onto the cloud in their business models. This makes sense from a corporate point of view, where a hardwired connection comes with a 99 per cent contract guarantee, and that market is being addressed.

In February, Google launched a $1,500 Chrome Pixel that without internet access is basically a stonkingly well-designed slim doorstop. Sure, you can use a few installed apps and a limited amount of mobile access is built in, but unless you've got a connection, the thing is less useful than a $300 netbook.

First-world problems

The software overlords of Silicon Valley and elsewhere seem to have forgotten however that the rest of us live in a world where internet connections can be spotty and expensive. Many of us would prefer to have code that they own and control without an internet connection.

Orth's comments show that the industry still isn't getting it, and what can be dismissed as acceptable downtime is a very real problem for many users. He might not see it from where he's standing, but for the rest of us it's a serious issue. ®

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