A View from David Zax
Nintendo’s Wii U, Tablets, and Gaming
Which company can hack the nexus where Apple and Nintendo meet?
I write sometimes about Nintendo, and I write sometimes (okay, often) about Apple, but rarely do I mention them in the same breath, or blog post. Both are players in hardware, to be sure, but they inhabit totally different regions in my mind. Nintendo makes gaming consoles. Apple makes iPhones. Sure, gaming consoles can connect to the web nowadays, and iPhones can play video games. But surely the companies aren’t competitors, in any direct sense, I’ve always thought. Their provinces are adjacent, but autonomous.
With this week’s release of the Wii U, Nintendo’s latest gaming console, and the suite of reviews that have followed, I begin to realize how wrong I’ve been. Nintendo and Apple have been converging in the same place: the web-connected living room. Two stories that were seemingly unrelated–the rise of the tablet computer, and the rise of the console-driven living room–are actually two parts of the same story. And as for which company is best suited to emerge the victor in this story–whether Nintendo, Apple, or another player like Microsoft–it’s anyone’s bet.
First of all, what is the Wii U and what are people saying about it? It’s the next-generation Nintendo console that went on sale yesterday. CNET has a review of it, as do countless other outlets. Overall, the reviews are somewhat mixed. People are impressed with the console and its games. But they’re inclined to reserve final judgment until a web TV ecosystem that Nintendo has been promising is fully fleshed out.
The centerpiece of the Wii U experience, though, is its controller, called the GamePad. The GamePad more closely resembles a tablet computer than a traditional handheld remote for a gaming console. The GamePad offers a “second screen” experience while playing Wii U games on your television. You can also play certain games solely on your GamePad, so long as you’re within a certain range of your main Wii U console.
And here’s where Nintendo and Apple are on something of a collision course. Both are now companies trying to figure out how tablets and TVs interact. As CNET’s Scott Stein rightly notes, Nintendo’s next product needs to be more like the iPad; anyone used to the iPad’s connectivity and portability will simply be annoyed that the GamePad doesn’t offer that flexibility.
And though Stein doesn’t say this, the converse is also true; Apple’s next product needs to be more like the Wii U. In fact, if Apple were able to produce a gaming console to rival the offerings of Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft, Apple would make serious inroads into living rooms in a way that it hasn’t managed to so far with its Apple TV set-top boxes.
Should Apple make a console–or embed something akin to one into its rumored iTV devices? One of the more intriguing rumors of the past year claimed that Tim Cook had met with Valve CEO Gabe Newell–something Newell swiftly denied. A flurry of rumors that Apple was developing a gaming console of its own, or interested in partnering with Newell in some way, soon followed. In fact, though, Cook said he’s not interested in the traditional console business. “Gaming has kind of evolved a bit. More people play on portable devices. Where we might go in the future, we’ll see,” he said at a conference in May. “Customers love games. I’m not interested in being in the console business in what is thought of as traditional gaming. But Apple is a big player today and things in the future will only make it bigger.” Someone asked Cook if perhaps the Apple TV could be positioned as a gaming console in the future, and Cook replied, “I think it could be interesting.”
What is interesting to Cook ought to be terrifying to Nintendo (and Sony, and Microsoft). If Apple were to create an internet-connected television with the processing power to play games like those we see on consoles, and figured out a way to integrate its dominant tablet in a seamless way with that television, while also allowing us all the freedom to bring that tablet with us throughout our day and use it as a general computing device–that would be a fearsome package indeed. There are a lot of “if”s there, though.
Curiously, the release of the Wii U makes me think that Microsoft, more than any company, is ideally positioned to somehow marry the worlds of console gaming–where it has arguably the finest product, the Xbox–and tablet computing–where it has recently released a new product that, while not likely to immediately unseat the iPad, seems viable. If Microsoft could win over enough users to its Surface or other tablet devices running its software, then it would be truly interesting to see the ways Microsoft could integrate its gaming and connected-TV expertise with its nascent tablet software business. The bottom line is that if my iPad somehow controlled or meaningfully interacted with my Xbox, I think I would have reached a kind of technological nirvana. The fact that it doesn’t, and that I’m left wanting, is something that all the major hardware players should be paying attention to.