Opinion: X-Surface exists...but we should probably get the facts first
A source-y story
Microsoft is working on an Xbox branded Surface tablet, likely to be unveiled at the same time as the giant's next home console. Probably. Maybe. Surely.
Last week saw the above claim - amongst other entirely reasonable sounding rumours - hit a flurry of news sites across the web, all based on an email sent from a supposed 'Microsoft employee'.
Without listing the elements of the 'tip off' in full, sites reported that the 'inside source' had revealed Microsoft's next console – surprise, surprise – wouldn't be branded Xbox 720, but rather is set adopt a more universal Xbox moniker.
Of more interest, however, was the claim that Microsoft is also due to launch an X-Surface tablet. To quote the email sent out by the leak, X-Surface would serve as a 'standalone portable gaming system" that would be able to access games and other media from the Microsoft Store.
"The actual hardware specifications of X-Surface are not something that I personally have knowledge of," detailed the 'Microsoft man'.
"My team has had access to the device for three weeks and are currently working on SmartGlass integration and wifi direct compatibility. As you would expect, it can run all games just as well as Surface RT currently can, but it is clear that X-Surface has much improved hardware."
It all sounds perfectly legitimate. Only problem was, it wasn't.
Said email had been sent out by a gamer looking to illustrate how easy it was to get the games media to print completely contrived nonsense for a few quick hits – and many sadly played ball.
News of the leak had hit major sites by the following morning, with the email's author taking to his or her blog hours later to reveal the whole thing had been a hoax.
Most embarrassing for all those involved was the fact that, in the majority of cases, it appears the initial batch of sites contacted by the trickster did very little to check the validity of the source.
"Pocket-Lint.com were the first to run with the news, almost exactly one hour after saying 'we have to make an effort to validate'; two hours before I got the chance to reply," detailed the anonymous blogger.
"It was posted with zero validation, no fact-checking, no source information. Just a simple email basically saying 'I work for Microsoft - believe me?'."
Other sites then took Pocket-Lint by its word and began to re-publish the story en masse, with American giants such as CNET, Yahoo and VentureBeat all getting in on the game.
If you're someone who has faith in those who earn their crust by tapping away at their keyboards across the games media, it was not a good day.
'Most repugnant person I've ever known'
The whole debacle, however, brings to light two issues.
Firstly – and very simply – it was foolish, and incredibly worrying, that any of the writers who received that initial email touched it with a barge pole.
As soon as the source in question refused to detail who they were or offer any proof of their position, then that should have been it. No coverage. No comeback. Email sent straight to junk.
It's perfectly fine – and often incredibly advantageous – to build stories around anonymous sources, but 'anonymous' should mean the name of the source is kept from the reader, not from the writer.
As an aside, the one journalist who saw through the scam almost immediately was CVG's Rob Crossley, who – to his credit – pointed out there was no way his site could run the article without evidence to back up who the blogger was purporting to be.
Interestingly, the blogger has since gone on to criticise Crossley for this action - describing him as "the most repugnant person I've ever known in the gaming world" - despite the fact Rob illustrated the kind of editorial standards he is presumably looking to reinforce.
As a result, the hoaxer's motivation for pulling off the stunt is surely up for debate. Why, if he was looking to highlight how easy it was to pull the wool over the eyes of bad journalists, was he annoyed when someone did their job properly and didn't fall for it?
To make matters worse, Pocket-Lint's response when the scam was revealed was to update its story, claiming it was within its rights to publish the leak because everything the tipster told them appeared 'plausible".
When it comes to sources, it should never be a case of whether their claims seem legitimate or not – that's secondary. The big questions are who they are, and what there relationship is with you.
I could quite reasonably claim, for instance, that Sony's next console will be called the PS4, will be black, and will launch with a new game in the Uncharted series – none of which sounds outlandish at all. But does that mean you should take my word for it? Of course not.
I have no inside knowledge of anything Sony is planning, however 'plausible" my claims seem.
That, however, leads on nicely to my second point. Pocket-Lint was right in one sense: The X-Surface rumours included in the hoaxer's email do – by and large – sound entirely reasonable.
I've detailed on these pages before my views that Microsoft is moving away from the idea of Xbox being a home console and nothing more.
The whole of the Xbox brand – from console, to mobile, tablet and PC – is becoming a unified platform.
Part of this unification will be sealed when the new home console is unveiled. Indeed, I'd be willing to bet on a gaming tablet – called X-Surface or otherwise – being announced at the same time as the new Xbox console.
Having spent last weekend playing with a friend's Wii U (and, indeed, with Microsoft's own SmartGlass in mind), it seems clear to me that elements of Nintendo's strategy are bang on the money.
The original Wii and the touchscreen revolution pioneered by smartphones opened consumers up to the different ways they can play games. We are no longer tied to our controllers or joypads, and – in my view – games are all the better for it.
With games like ZombiU - which boasts multiplayer that charges one player with taking on a traditional FPS while the other places zombies to take them down using a 2D touchscreen interface – the path is being laid for an ecosystem where we don't just play each other, but we play different parts of the same game on different devices, all at the same time.
The waiting game
In view of that, I think it's safe to say Microsoft either will launch a dedicated Xbox tablet, or offer some sort of upgrade to their existing Surface units.
Whatever form the tablet takes, it'll operate both as a control method for certain console games, as well as serving as an independent gaming device in its own right.
And, of course, it won't stop there.
Any plans Microsoft is currently working on will be generating chatter aplenty within the corridors of its rivals, too. As the hoaxer was counting on, this industry's not always especially good at keeping secrets.
As a result, things here at Pocket Gamer – and, of course, our numerous rivals – are about to get a whole lot more interesting.
If Windows 8 and Wii U coverage borders on the edge of our remit, then just imagine how complicated things are going to become when the same games span multiple forms of hardware.
But lets not jump the gun. Lets not speculate all too wildly. Well, at least until the next 'anonymous' email lands in our inbox, anyway.
All logos used in this piece are mock-ups.
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