This morning, Microsoft announced that it was ceasing production on the Xbox 360, its popular video-game console. The first Xbox 360s hit shelves more than a decade ago, in November of 2005; since 2013, the model has played second fiddle to the newer Xbox One. And yet it’s survived, its hardware unchanged, since it first debuted. In that sense, it’s kind of an anomaly: The Xbox 360 should not still exist in 2016, but it does, and looking at its trajectory perfectly illustrates the last decade of shifting focus in digital entertainment.
When you buy a set-top box these days, or maybe just a smart TV itself, you expect it to have a few features, like video streaming, or voice control, or smartphone integration — at the very least, it should connect to the internet. You would never buy a game console that didn’t do at least most of these things; these are standard features. Here are the things that you couldn’t do when the Xbox 360 first launched: stream video from cloud services, buy full-price retail games digitally, control it via gesture or voice, or connect it to your smartphone. One of its model configurations had a storage capacity of just 4 gigabytes.
The Xbox 360 was one of the first consoles to have substantial online functionality throughout its system for purposes other than multiplayer. It popularized the concept of digital distribution — that is, downloadable games, rather than purchased discs — in many ways. Programs like the Xbox Live Arcade made people more comfortable with the notion of buying games without actually receiving physical media (in its infancy, Arcade games had a size limit of 50MB, which is crazy-small in retrospect), and, as the decade wore on, the idea of the same game being available simultaneously digitally and on physical discs became commonplace.
But even Microsoft was unprepared for just how crucial online functionality would be for the console. Downloadable content — add-on content released after the initial game — seemed novel in 2005, but is now a core strategy of the video-game industry. The console’s first user interface, referred to as the “blade” interface, proved woefully inadequate for navigating the Xbox Live Marketplace. Buying and downloading digital content was something one did occasionally in 2006, not multiple times every day. That same year, the release model of Lumines Live caused a stir when it was revealed that the game would be sold in sections, not as one full package. That model was a progenitor of the current free-to-play model, giving away the razor and selling the blades, so to speak. Now, the most popular mobile games earn money not from huge up-front prices, but from micro-transactions.
The situation with the blade interface became so untenable that, in 2008, just three years after launching, Microsoft completely redid the interface, calling it the New Xbox Experience, or NXE. At the time, the idea of a completely different operating system, distributed over the internet for free, was a foreign concept (at least, it was to me). The only pieces of tech that needed software upgrades were computers — the idea that the thing sitting under your TV next to the DVD player was capable of the same thing was nuts.
Along with the NXE came another crucial product: Netflix. In July of 2008, Microsoft inked a deal to be the only game console with a Netflix app. This was, at the time, remarkable. A Netflix-specific Roku model existed, but was not well-known, and the Apple TV model on store shelves only served as a set-top box for interfacing with locally stored content on iTunes, not the cloud. The Apple TV wouldn’t support Netflix streaming until a new model was released in 2010. In 2016, pretty much everything with an internet connection runs Netflix. We’re maybe three years from a toilet running Netflix. And that all started with Microsoft making a huge play for the living-room market.
The Xbox 360 also had a video-rental store in 2006, right alongside iTunes, but it had the advantage of being connected to a TV. The first Apple TV with the functionality to buy and rent from iTunes didn’t come along until 2008.
This is not to say that Microsoft hasn’t had a number of missteps. Its Kinect motion-tracking camera was novel at first, but the tech just wasn’t up to snuff. Microsoft tried to force an upgraded version on Xbox One owners, but it’s been quietly put out to pasture. Still, it was hard not to look at the E3 2009 concept demo and not get intrigued.
Likewise, Microsoft’s penchant for corporate synergy led to other follies. Xbox Live’s PC counterpart, Games for Windows Live, crashed and burned, as did the 360-integrated Zune music store. And over the last few years, slowly but surely, the Xbox 360’s interface has morphed to resemble the Windows 8 Metro UI.
Console generations usually last four or five years, but the 2008 economic crash prolonged the Xbox 360 and PS3’s lifespans indefinitely, making it a static piece of hardware in an industry that prefers rapid iteration. (Already, there’s chatter of both Microsoft and Sony bolstering current console hardware, and Nintendo is close to releasing an entirely new system.) Using an Xbox 360 over the last decade, in retrospect, has provided a front-row seat to the rapid evolution of the home-entertainment industry — digital distribution, streaming video, and micro-transactions chief among the adaptations. That it all happened on a single box is all the more remarkable.