Halo’s Effect

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Note: Although I’m just posting this article, it was written in April of 2007 and also published at Helium. As such, it may be a little dated.

Halo’s Effect: The biggest threat to the dominance of Microsoft Windows on the desktop may also be coming out of Redmond, Washington; from a little company called Microsoft.

As Windows began to gain control of desktop computing around version 3.1 (or 3.11, to be more precise), a long-running question was spun up, “Who could possibly take away that market control?” That spinning top of a question is still going ’round today. But there are a few more wobbles these days, and one competitor, of a sort, may be causing more imbalance than others: Microsoft’s own Xbox. Apple’s OSX has increased its market share as has Linux, but none of them may be quite as dangerous to the Windows juggernaut as the company’s own video game console.

One of the primary barbs tossed back and forth between Windows’ consumer users and users of other platforms has had to do with games. Windows had ’em, no one else really did. While it’s true that the increased popularity of OSX has led some game houses back to developing for the Mac, and a few houses went further and created Linux versions, this trickle of titles is nothing compared with the flood of games one finds at your average Best Buy or CompUSA. Even that bastion of gaming market share, the Sony PS2, couldn’t shake Windows’ steely grip on gaming. Especially when you’re talking online gaming and high-end 3-D graphics. With new cards on the market every other day, or so it seemed, Windows was still the hard-core gamer’s nirvana, and they were happy to be there. A never-ending battle with viruses, adware, spyware and other malware couldn’t sway them. If it couldn’t run ‘Everquest’ or ‘Battlefield 1942’ or the like, it didn’t matter how friendly and stable it was.

And then came the Xbox. And everyone was talking about ‘Halo’.
I’ll freely admit that I was skeptical of the Xbox. I rolled my eyes and said, “That’s all we need, the Blue Screen of Death on our gaming consoles”. It was, after all, a PC at heart. But the platform, and more to the point the Microsoft Xbox division, has proven me and other nay-sayers wrong. It has sold consistently well and satisfaction amongst owners is quite high. There have been stumbles here and there, but any new gaming platform needs to find its legs. And, it can’t be stressed enough, ‘Halo: Combat Evolved’ was the “kick ass” hit that the platform needed to send sales over the top. Drop a beige box gamer in front of an Xbox running ‘Halo’ and you’d have to pry the controller back from them. Add to that the promise that Xbox Live held for online gaming and did indeed deliver, and you’ve got a clear winner. Gamers were happy. Developers were happy. And when the Xbox 360 rolled out, consumers offered up a big chunk of their cash and eagerly climbed on that new horse. Also along for the ride were ‘Halo’ and its smash hit brother ‘Halo 2’. As were ‘Call of Duty 2’ and the megahit ‘Gears of War’. In short, Xbox ruled with PC gamers.

And then something interesting started to hit my radar. For those of you who don’t know me I’m not only a nerd at home, but at work as well. I run a computing department at a well-known university’s physics branch. Throughout the day I see students and faculty come and go and at night I’m never far from various online presences I maintain. Not all that long ago I started to notice a subtle change in the computing cloud around me. A few more Apple Powerbooks and MacBooks showed up around work, and as well as a few surprising “I’ve switched” stories online. As time went on I began to get the sneaking suspicion that some of these people hadn’t switch platforms so much as switched how they thought about their computer.

If your Xbox gave you all you needed, and maybe more, for your gaming experience, what need was there to remain loyal to Windows? And after a few stories from your Mac friends about how much less frustrating their day-to-day computing is on OSX… well, surely one has to begin to wonder if maybe you can’t have it all. Off the top of my head I can think of about five recent Mac switchers I know who, two or three years ago, would have been adamant about their need for Windows. But now they get their gaming done with Xbox (and also, increasingly, the Wii), and produce their podcasts or build their websites or write their blog on their Mac. Their personal computer, be it a Mac or a PC running Linux or WIndows, is about doing the things they need to get done and then moving on. Now that it’s not doubling as their game machine they’re free to pursue whatever works best, not what they’re willing to endure in order to get their game on.

And that, as I see it, is the ‘Halo Effect’ (‘Xbox Effect’ just didn’t sound as cool, you see). I, for one, will be happy to one day be done with the Mac vs Windows vs Linux debate. When it’s really about using whatever truly best suits you and appeases you, not what has which stranglehold on what market, then who cares what you choose. And maybe a little more competition for the desktop will get Microsoft to finally, for real, get control of the whole virus/adware/spyware nonsense which has kept so many suffering over and over – many who just wanted to have a little fun on WoW, not learn how to troubleshoot faulty software. And if that happens, they only need look so far as the Xbox to see who brought down mighty Windows.

In this new game of ‘Halo Effect’, maybe the ‘Blue Screen of Death’ will be the first to get PWND.

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