Opinion: Xbox SmartGlass a sign of smartphone's big future

Opinion: Xbox SmartGlass a sign of smartphone's big future
My first thought when Microsoft lifted the lid on Xbox SmartGlass – aside from, 'wow, what an awful name' – was just how much was missing from it.

A few days on, I realised that such a thought isn't actually a criticism. Actually, if anything, it's an acknowledgement of just how much potential I see in such a tool.

While SmartGlass may prove to be yet another in a long line of Microsoft brands that, itself, ends up coming to nothing (bye bye Zune) it's also a venture that could well serve as a sign of things to come.

Wii U 2

As things stand, what's on the table is far from revolutionary. Indeed, commentators have been quick to point out how close it is, in principle, to Nintendo's Wii U.

From a gaming perspective, Microsoft showcased just two SmartGlass enabled games – Halo 4 and EA's NFL Madden 13 – at E3, both of which utilised the technology in a very simple way: players will be able to use the touchscreen to alter tactics on the fly, for instance, rather than anything all too fundamental.

It is, however, an important insight as to where Microsoft sees the market going.

As we all know, Kinect on Xbox 360 – though eminently successful – is something of an experiment ready for Microsoft's next console. By the same token, SmartGlass could well be another attempt to test the water before an all the more serious assault with Microsoft's next machine.

And that's why it's exciting.

Smart move

Exciting, both for the developers already operating on either Xbox 360 or – in particular – Windows Phone, and anyone who has a vested interest in Microsoft.

While critics have lashed out at Nintendo's failure to react to the smartphone market, and Sony is only now beginning to get its act together (both in terms of a socially minded PS Vita, and the firm's takeover of Sony Ericsson), it's clear by this move Microsoft realises gaming on smartphone and tablets is here to stay.

Rather than simply waiting on Windows Phone to make an impression and man its defences, Microsoft has decided to blur the boundaries between gaming on the different form factors.

Smartphones and tablets now look set to serve as controllers for console games, acclimatising console gamers the touchscreen form factor.

Touch trials

That may sound like a small point, but question anyone with any kind of grudge against smartphone games and, more often than not, you'll find a belief that touchscreens aren't an ideal control method dominate their concerns.

SmartGlass also opens the way to games that truly cross platforms.

The idea of games you play across multiple forms of hardware with gameplay tailored for each devices has already been mooted by Crytek's GFACE platform. SmartGlass could be a first step towards delivering such a tool to the masses.

It's also, potentially, a sign of Microsoft stealing a march of Apple for once. While the industry waits for an app-equipped Apple TV to be announced, so Cook and co. are likely turning over in their minds just how said games should be controlled.

A remote control is unlikely to do the job. A separate controller is far from ideal. Tapping into Apple's extensive iOS userbase is likely the best option, with iPhones, iPod touches and iPads acting as the point of contact.

Everything changes

That's the direction Microsoft appears to be moving, too, with SmartGlass, and one I welcome.

Frankly, the idea that games on smartphones and tablets are going to do away with those on consoles and handhelds seems both puerile and nonsensical to me.

They're not going to kill them, they're going to change them, and SmartGlass is one of the early fruits of that change.

Even if, on a practical level, it offers little more than a hint of an industry where developers on mobile and console form closer ties, SmartGlass could still prove to be an important landmark on this road to change.

With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.


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