In the past few years, digital streaming has exploded into mainstream culture. Companies such as Netflix and Amazon have been dominating the entertainment landscape, and even Disney has announced the launch of their own streaming service in the recent months (Lashinsky). Interestingly enough, the very first service that allowed this is to happen was none of these. Microsoft first had the idea, and packaged it with the sale of their new gaming console to create the first multi-entertainment service released to the public, and since then, everyone else has been trying to follow in the footsteps of Xbox Live.
During the 1990’s, Microsoft was in firm command of the personal computer industry with their Windows operating system, so much so that the term PC has become synonymous with Microsoft. Yet Microsoft was always looking to expand, wanting to get involved in any technological area they did not control. One such area was gaming. While they had many games published, they had no gaming console dedicated to the craft that could rival the likes of Nintendo and Sega. Just making a console wouldn’t be satisfactory. In typical fashion of the multimillion dollar company, Microsoft wanted to create an experience for its consumers, one that was devised by the visionary J Allard.
Allard was the pioneer behind the original Xbox. He saw how simple consoles like the Nintendo 64 were, and they were able to generate enormous amounts of revenue for their respective companies. Armed with the most advanced software in the world and funded by the richest company, the possibilities seemed endless Allard’s team, who began development on the Xbox. Many items made the Xbox stand out from the other consoles of its generation, but perhaps the most influential was one small, overlooked detail that greatly altered how games are played.
Microsoft was not the first company to attempt an online service through its console. The Sega Dreamcast had the feature available, but it was largely unreliable and never became extremely popular. This is mainly due to the fact that it relied on dial-up modems, which were inconsistent. The dial-up modem was identified to be the problem by Allard, who insisted that broadband should be used instead. He was repeatedly denied his request, even by Bill Gates. Allard was persistent, though. He relentlessly bombarded his superiors with the request, providing the evidence that it is a relatively cheap alternative with benefits that far outweigh the costs. He staked his reputation upon this idea, and eventually, it paid off, with broadband connection being implemented into the Xbox. The broadband connection is the feature which allowed video streaming to all Xbox owners from a hub.
Today, Xbox Live is mainly regarded as an online playing experience, which it is. Xbox Live was also a forefather in that regard as well, as it was the first successful online gaming experiment. It spawned similar services from online game hubs like Steam, Sony’s PlayStation, and Nintendo with the newly released Switch. The ability to play with your friends remotely was a revolutionary idea of its own in 2002, but that was only half the equation. Microsoft also included the ability to digitally stream content. It did not have the capability to stream full length movies or offer a whole series of TV shows, (VHS systems were still present in many households, and DVDs were the cutting edge of home released movies) but that technology paved the way for modern television.
As it is with every change, Xbox Live also had negative consequences, both within gaming and streaming. With online gaming readily available, many games have diverted from including many offline options, instead opting to focus on the multiplayer aspect. For consumers, this means that most games cannot be fully accessed unless Xbox Live is bought, costing an extra sixty dollars per year. For streaming, it has changed the quality of movies, causing a shift in the movie industry away from being videoed on physical film and instead being shot in digital pixels. This makes it simpler to stream digitally, but it is a sacrifice in how clear the picture is. This is a trend that some famous directors, such as Christopher Nolan (Brown) and Kenneth Branagh (Sharf), have been fighting.
The effects of Microsoft’s revolutionary Xbox Live is evident all around us. The technology changed Netflix from a mail-delivery DVD service into a digital streaming company. It inspired the launch of Amazon’s online service Prime. It indirectly attributed to the shutting down of Blockbuster (Stern) and the threat of the same fate for Redbox (Seitz). On the other hand, it led to starting YouTube and additional smaller streaming networks, such as Twitch. Xbox Live is a great example how progress should be made cautiously, because unintended side effects may negatively affect the world just as much, if not more, than its benefits. While it may seem to simply be a way for friends to play together online, its effects are much more far reaching than that. In the words of Albert Einstein, “Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.”