Microsoft sure seems to be thinking about some sort of portable Xbox

AI SaaS

A demo of "Project Xcloud" streaming running on a mobile device, circa 2019.
Enlarge / A demo of “Project Xcloud” streaming running on a mobile device, circa 2019.


Yesterday’s news that four unnamed Microsoft games are coming to “the other consoles” was a bit anticlimactic after weeks of now-refuted rumors about games like Starfield and Indiana Jones and the Great Circle going to the PlayStation 5. Yet even as those rumors die, Microsoft seems to be actively feeding new rumors regarding plans for some sort of portable gaming device.

In an interview with the Verge accompanying yesterday’s “multi-platform” business announcement, Microsoft Xbox CEO Phil Spencer was asked directly about any handheld hardware plans, including his recent penchant for liking some social media posts discussing handheld game consoles. While Spencer said he had “nothing to announce,” he talked up a lot of other handheld gaming hardware when talking about how Xbox could capture more “player hours.”

So, okay, what keeps people from playing certain hours? Well there’s some sleep, school, and kind of normal life, but some of it is just access. Do I have access to the games that I want to play right now? Obviously we’re kind of learning from what Nintendo has done over the years with Switch, they’ve been fantastic with that. So when I look at Steam Deck and the ROG and my Legion Go, I’m a big fan of that space.

Spencer went on to say that “real work” still needs to be done to get Windows to work better with controller input and on smaller 7- to 8-inch screens. That’s the kind of OS work we’d note would be very useful if Microsoft is planning to release a Windows-based gaming portable of its own (we’re assuming Microsoft would not want to ditch Windows in favor of SteamOS). “That’s a real design point that our platform team is working with Windows to make sure that the experience is even better,” he said.

Spencer gave even more direct hints along the same lines in an interview with Bloomberg, where he mentioned “early plans” for new consoles and promised, “We’re going to be able to do more innovative things in hardware, the more the game side of the business is having success.” He added that he “get[s] excited about different form factors that allow people to play in different places,” which sure sounds like the kind of thing a portable game console allows for.

Remember the “Xboy”?

Rumors of a Microsoft gaming portable are far from new, dating back to at least the Xbox 360 era and popping up periodically ever since. As recently as last year, insider reports suggested Microsoft had prototyped a “cloud-focused Xbox handheld” in the past, including work on a “lightweight” Xbox interface designed for handhelds.

At the moment, it’s hard to know whether a theoretical Xbox portable would be limited to streaming (either from an in-home Xbox console or the cloud), as those reports suggested. While a streaming-focused handheld could definitely be cheaper to produce, it would be necessarily limited by a smaller selection of games, the need for a reliable Internet connection, and the ever-present latency issues that streaming games have yet to shake (and/or the need to be on the same network as a local Xbox).

Could Sony's PlayStation Portal provide a roadmap for a similar "portable Xbox" design?
Enlarge / Could Sony’s PlayStation Portal provide a roadmap for a similar “portable Xbox” design?

Sony

Regardless, some industry pundits have also recently taken to arguing for Microsoft to make a portable gaming move as well. Earlier this week, The Verge proclaimed that “it’s time for Microsoft to build an Xbox Steam Deck” (in a piece timed almost suspiciously closely to the site’s hint-filled Spencer interview). And Jez Corden at Windows Central argued earlier this month that an Xbox handheld “isn’t just likely… it’s absolutely necessary,” (in a piece that also received a like from Spencer on social media).

Then again, a Microsoft “Roadmap to 2030” document from May 2022 (revealed through leaked court documents during the Activision Blizzard merger case last year) listed a portable console as “not in scope for 1st party” as part of Microsoft’s plans at the time. And in 2020, Microsoft’s former head of Xbox, Robbie Bach, discussed three previous times in Xbox history where proposals for an “Xboy” portable were shot down because “we just didn’t have the bandwidth to do that.”

But Bach’s tenure at Xbox (which ended in 2010) was a very different era in the portable gaming market. Today, Valve’s Steam Deck and its imitators have proven there’s a space for more PC-like gaming handhelds that go beyond Nintendo’s longstanding iron grip on handheld gaming. Even Sony recently re-entered the portable gaming market with the PlayStation Portal, though that device being restricted to in-home streaming from a local PS5 puts it in a different class than many other gaming handhelds.

The new rumors also come at a very different time in Microsoft’s own hardware-making story. In 2010, the ill-fated Microsoft Zune was on the verge of ending its short market tenure. Today, Microsoft’s line of Surface laptop-tablets has spent over a decade successfully establishing its place in a competitive market. Maybe Microsoft will take some of those Surface lessons forward if it decides to enter the handheld gaming market for the first time.

AI SaaS

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