The AppleTV As Dominant Game Platform?

Part of the Apple announcement included a demonstration of gameplay. People expected this to be part of the package, and there has been a lot of talk about the AppleTV vs. the consoles like PS4 and XBox. An article such as this is typical, as as some of the comments that follow in them, but in some ways most of those defending consoles are missing the point, or making assumptions about the future.

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Is Apple Really The Next Sony?

A recent piece on Forbes outlines 5 reasons why the author believes Apple could be the next Sony. The ideas are interesting, and conceptually reasonable, but the author makes some mistaken assumptions about a couple of things. He isn’t wrong on many facts, but there are some underlying assumptions that are incorrect.

 

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Portable Gaming: Are Nintendo and Sony Paying Attention?

A recent Engadget article discusses the mobile gaming strategies for the “Big 3” of console gaming: Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. Microsoft, like Apple, views their Windows Phone platform as a venue for gaming on the go. Nintendo and Sony, though, seem to be living in a serious reality distortion field.

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The Decline and Fall of Sony

There is an intriguing piece on Forbes regarding which PC manufacturer is the next to tumble, now that HP is going to spin off or possibly sell their PC business. One company that gets some attention from the author is Sony, and that got me thinking about them. For me, Sony is pretty much a “used to be” company for me. The only product they have that I use with any regularity is the Playstation 3. I use it both for games and as a DVD and Blu-ray player, and I really like my PS3. Beyond that, though, I use very little or nothing from Sony.

I was, at one point, a very big Sony fan. As soon as I could afford one, I bought a Sony Walkman when I was in university (the small one that, when collapsed, was about the size of a cassette case) to replace the generic Walkman clone I used before it. That thing went with me everywhere for about 2 years. I eventually got a portable Sony stereo which was my music source when I worked in an office. I wanted a Sony Trinitron TV, but couldn’t afford them at the time, and was hoping to have a Sony stereo in my apartment. During the 1980’s and into the early 1990’s, they had products that were both technologically advanced and came with great industrial design. They were leaders in many ways, and many other companies used them as a benchmark for the product’s features and designs.

However, something happened. They faltered and lost their way. They had a small number of cool products in the late 1990’s, mainly the Vaio notebooks and the Playstation. I had a Vaio Z505 notebook for a while, and while the purple colour could be a bit much, it was a very, very thin and light machine (presaging the MacBook Air in many ways). It was a great machine to travel with. But their TVs and stereos weren’t as compelling, and beyond the one family of notebooks, the rest of their PC offerings were merely “okay” in terms of features and pretty expensive for what you got.

Sony continued to try to push music formats that they invented, to their detriment. The MiniDisc, while interesting, was a non-starter for me. I had far too much music on CD (although nowhere near what I have now), and having to repurchase the library or try to convert it was too much work. I looked at MD players a couple of times, but the time to convert and the price of the devices just wasn’t attractive to me. I stuck with portable CD players.

Then there were their feeble attempts at entering the MP3 player market. Their first tries in this market were disasters. None of them actually supported MP3 directly. You had to convert your MP3s to their format (which took forever), and most of their devices has precious little storage. I bought one of their stick-like players off a friend for cheap, tried it a couple of times, and then gave up on it. Eventually, I bought an iPod and I never looked back.

The Playstation console, and its follow-on iterations, were certainly seismic events in the gaming world, although each for different reasons. The first model was a preview of what was to come. The PS2 was the king of consoles for the longest time, and Sony continues to sell them in rather impressive volumes. The PS3 was a bit of a leader, technologically, but took quite a while before sales started to pick up. It is still number 3 overall, and was outsold by its older sibling for several years, and hasn’t had anywhere near the impact on gaming that the Wii has had. I still use my quite regularly. I prefer the catalog of games compared to the Wii, although there are some Xbox 360 games that I wish would come to the PS3 sooner. I also use mine as a DVD and Blu-ray player. When I looked at the price of the higher-end models, and given that I was going to get a PS3 for games anyways, combining the functions just made economic sense. The machine is actually quite good at both an up-converting DVD player and as a Blu-ray machine.

The Playstation Portable was also something of a bright light in an otherwise uninteresting line of products. I got one of the first generation machines (using reward points), and quite liked it, more than the Nintendo TS. Again, I preferred the games on the PSP, and I found I could use it more comfortably. I liked it enough that I bought a PSP Go, which I used for a year or so. But, once I started to get good games on the iPhone and later the iPad, the PSP Go has sat unused for over a year now. I’m not likely to bother with the PSP replacement. Between my iPhone and iPad, I get productivity, communications and entertainment. The PSP would only be for games, and I carry enough junk when I travel. I don’t need another device (along with the charger) in my luggage.

I thought their decision to resurrect the Walkman name was actually pathetic and a bit desperate. Their sad attempts to trade on nostalgia didn’t do anything for me. There wasn’t anything really leading-edge about the devices (unlike some models of the original Walkman), and their industrial designs were pretty dull and uninteresting. This was probably the biggest indicator that Sony was trying to coast. Their Vaio line went from being cool and expensive to just being expensive. I toyed briefly with getting a Sony when I needed a Windows notebook recently, but went with Dell instead. The Dell was smaller and more powerful machine for less. The Sony TV’s aren’t any more interesting or compelling than anything I can get from Samsung or Toshiba. Basically, Sony doesn’t have anything, in my mind, that stands out (in a good way) from the rest of the products they compete against.

During the 1980’s and into the 1990’s, Sony was, in some ways, what Apple is today: products that were sometimes leading edge, but also products that looked good and were enjoyable to use. They were cool. They were the benchmark that many other consumer electronics products were judged by. Now, all they have are largely rehashed and dull designs, none of which stand out either technologically or aesthetically. Unless something changes, Sony’s best days are behind them, and behind them by a couple of decades. They used to be leaders. They aren’t anymore.

Portable Gaming is Another Big Mobile Battleground

Apparently Satoru Iwata, President of Nintendo, was giving the keynote at the Game Developer’s Conference at the Moscone Center, basically across the street from the Yerba Buena Center where Apple was announcing iPad 2. While I haven’t heard in detail how much the Apple event impacted attendance at Iwata-san’s talk, I’m sure it had some impact. It was, in some ways, a small vignette in the continuing and growing battleground in portable gaming. I haven’t really dug deeply into the numbers in the portable gaming market, but what data I have seen is telling. The main upshot is that the iPhone has taken a piece out of the market, and away from the Nintendo DS series of portable game consoles and the Sony Playstation Portable line. If you believe some numbers, there are increasing numbers of people playing games on the iPhone and iPod Touch than on the traditional portable game machines, and apparently more game developers are showing interest in iOS devices than Nintendo or Sony.

This battle has been underway the moment the first games were released for iPhone and iPod Touch, but it has only been in the last year or so that iOS has started to take some significant share in the space. This is an important battle, particularly for Nintendo. The DS is a huge platform for gaming, and not just portable gaming, but gaming in general. According to data at VGChartz.com, as of February 19th, the Nintendo DS represents nearly 69% of portable gaming consoles, with 145.5 million units sold since its release. Compare that with the iPhone, which has now sold about 100 million units. Numbers from last September put all iOS device sales at 120 million units (that was combined iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad sales). That data is already 5 months old, so I would expect that iOS device sales have exceeded Nintendo DS sales. Granted, not all of those are used for gaming, but I would expect a significant percentage are, even if only for the occasional casual game like some form of Solitaire.

Okay, that’s interesting, but what does it mean? Gaming in general is a big business, worth billions of dollars in revenue. Sony has other revenue sources, given their broader consumer electronics base, and Microsoft relies on much more than the Xbox 360 for its revenue numbers. But Nintendo relies almost exclusively on game hardware and software sales. What revenue they get that isn’t for gaming gear is from licensed merchandise (like the Pokemon cards, clothes, etc) directly related to gaming. Where Nintendo may be the most vulnerable in the long term is in the casual game market: they pretty much own that in the living room and on the go. Having to compete with devices that, at least at the low end, are comparable or within a reasonable percentage price-wise, and have a large selection of games will be difficult for Nintendo.

However, all is not lost for the gaming companies, because their value really isn’t in the hardware. The real value, and the key to their long-term survival, is in their software and the game franchises. Some of the biggest franchises in gaming belong to Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. The Pokemon series of games is exclusive to Nintendo, as is the Mario franchise. LittleBigPlanet is a Sony property. Halo is under Microsoft’s umbrella. These franchises, and the others that these companies own could keep them alive by adding support for iOS, Android and other mobile platforms.

I think that it would be foolish, in the medium and long-term, for Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo to try to compete on hardware. As with dedicated devices like eBook readers, they will find that trying to attract people to their platforms will be increasingly difficult over time. Their gameplay may be superior, but to also try to compete on general-purpose functions like web browsing, productivity, social media and other communications, becomes a very, very steep hill to climb. I know that I’m not sure if I will buy the next generation of PSP. I bought the first generation, and then got the PSP Go, and while they have games that I like to play on them that aren’t available on iOS, I’m not sure I want to kick out a few hundred bucks for a machine that I won’t use much, if at all. My PSP Go has stayed on my desk, battery drained, for the better part of a year now. It didn’t go with me on any of the trips I took over the past 12 months. Why bother? It’s another device and another charger I have to drag around. I already bring my iPhone, iPad and a laptop on some trips (and for casual/vacation-type trips, I only bring the iPhone and the iPad). I’ve been trying to bring fewer electronic devices with me, and I am disinclined to add a new PSP back into the mix.

This battle isn’t over by a long-shot, but I’m not confident that dedicated portable game consoles are going to continue to dominate portable gaming. They will probably still exist in some form for a long while. But I suspect general purpose mobile devices like smartphones and tablets will continue to erode their position. Watch for Nintendo to release versions of Mario and Pokemon games for other platforms in the coming years, and for Sony and Microsoft to eventually do something similar. It is their best chance at long-term survival.

Smartphones and Tablets vs. Dedicated Portable Gaming

An article on TechVibes does a pretty good job outlining some of the challenges that dedicated gaming platforms like the Nintendo DS family and the Sony PlayStation Portable are now facing. The main point is that the cost of the devices, along with the cost of a smartphone or tablet, will act as a barrier to adoption at the same rates as previous generations of the platforms.

What the author didn’t comment on, though, was the incremental cost of the content. This makes the case for the DS and PSP even worse: games for the DS and PSP are anywhere from two to nearly 10 times the cost of a similar game on the iPhone or iPad. Take, as an example, the Madden Football franchise. The upcoming Madden Football for the Nintendo 3DS is listed at CA$39.99 on the BestBuy.ca web site. On the Canadian iTunes App Store, Madden 11 (admittedly, a slightly different game) is listed at CA$4.99 for the iPhone version and CA$12.99 for the iPad version. Even buying the two apps (one for my iPhone and one for my iPad) is cheaper than buying the single copy for the 3DS.

This sort of price disadvantage can be found across a lot of games. A typical game for the PSP or DS can range in price anywhere from CA$25 up to CA$45, unless they happen to be on sale. Similar games on the iPhone range anywhere from CA$3 up to CA$15. The iPad versions are typically more expensive, coming in anywhere from CA$10 – CA$20, although most are closer to low end of that price range from what I’ve seen.

What does this mean for someone who wants portable gaming? That even the most expensive iPad (CA$879.99 for a 64GB with 3G) would be cheaper over the long run for gaming over an (estimated) CA$350 3DS, specifically because of the games. Consider someone who would end up buying around 50 games over a period of two years (basically a game or so each month). On the 3DS, assuming an average $30/game cost, that would mean a total cost of about $1,850 over two years. That same person with an iPad, assuming about $12/game, would have spent around $1,480, or just under $400 less. Now, for the 3G iPad owner with a data plan, that pushes the total cost to about $200 more over the two years.

If you work with the cheapest iPad at $549.99, then the cost difference is even bigger: the 3DS owner would have spent about $700 more. The most expensive WiFi-only iPad reduces that to a $500 differential, but in the end the iPad owner ends up spending less over the two years.

And in those two years, the iPad owner has had access to one of the largest media libraries available with iTunes, the ability to view movies and TV shows through services like NetFlix, and had all of the other benefits of a more general-purpose computing device that the 3DS owner either wouldn’t have, or would have in a more limited form. It is unclear if Skype will be available on the 3DS, but I can get it on the iPhone and iPad, and use it communicate with people on a variety of platforms.

Overall, like the dedicated eBook reader, I think that the dedicated portable game machine’s days are numbered. They won’t go away immediately, and there is still some life in them. But as the game libraries on platforms like iPad, iPhone and the Androids continue to grow, the case for having a dedicated machine (with another charger, and another system to maintain, and more space in the carry-on) becomes less viable.

Spending Apple’s Money

One of the pieces of data that came out of the Apple earnings call was that Apple now has about $51 billion dollars in cash and cash-equivalents stashed away. Steve was asked if he would consider some kind of plan like a dividend to give it back to the shareholders, but his response was “no”. There are some investors that believe that a company should keep the minimum cash needed for contingencies, and give the rest back to the shareholders, either in the form of a dividend, or a share-repurchasing. Their belief is that the investors would put the money to better use. I can see the merit of that argument, however, I can also see the wisdom of any company hoarding cash, particularly if you are one that is subject to the foibles of consumer interest and demand.

What knowledge of that cash has also done is fired up the rumour mill of Apple buying something big. People are reading a lot into Steve’s “saving it for something strategic” comment, and many seem to presume that Apple will buy something very, very soon. A deal could be in the works, but just because they have money available doesn’t mean Apple needs to spend it right this instant. Apple has had a warchest of cash for many years now, and they continue to grow their internal fund as profits continue to accumulate. Apple hasn’t bought anyone significantly large so far, why is now all of a sudden the right time to do so? Part of it is the short-term thinking of so many analysts and pundits, part of it is a way to drive traffic to news sites, and part of it is just the fun of speculating on how to spend other people’s money.

The rumours I’ve heard so far include Apple buying Disney, Adobe, Netflix and Sony. All are intriguing targets, and all have their attractions, distractions and downsides.

Disney would give Apple a presence on the content-creation side of their product line, providing fodder for iTunes and Apple devices. Disney, however, comes with a lot of baggage: television networks, traditional movie distribution, clothing and other merchandize, and the theme parks are among the few things that Apple would either have to incorporate into their company, or find a way to spin them off. Getting movies, TV shows, music and games for iTunes is one thing: running a bunch of theme parks and making Mickey Mouse dolls is completely different.

Adobe could make a good fit, and it would give Apple a shot at fixing the issues with Flash they have complained about (some rightly so). Tighter integration with the Creative Suite tools and Apple’s own content creation tools would make things easier. However, Adobe also supports Windows, Linux and some mobile platforms, and Apple would inherit this. Trying to get rid of some of those platforms would simply close off the Adobe products, making it more likely that people would move away from them as preferred technologies for things like multimedia and document interchange. It would force Apple to branch out beyond MacOS and iOS for more than just iTunes and QuickTime.

Netflix might also be a good fit, providing Apple with a ready-built platform for streaming movies. Incorporating it into iTunes makes logical sense (although iTunes has become something of a mess over the years as things get “bolted on”). Apple is already familiar with dealing with iTunes on multiple platforms, but it would mean Apple having to support Android, BlackBerry and others beyond just adding Windows to the mix. That probably won’t sit well within Apple, but from a long-term perspective, makes sense for iTunes as a content delivery platform.

Sony is a wild idea, and on the face of it doesn’t seem to make much sense. However, Apple has slowly been remaking itself from “computer company” to “consumer electronics company”. Sony already has much deeper experience than Apple in these areas, as well as the infrastructure for building large numbers of lower-margin products. Sony has also, culturally, had some passion for industrial design, not just features and functions, which might work nicely alongside Apple’s focus on design. Where Sony falls down is their increasing lack of momentum, and their misses: the Playstation 3 is an amazing piece of technology, but Sony lost the crown as leader of video game consoles to Nintendo and the Wii. Sony no longer commands the premium they once did in home electronics (although they continue to try), and their are a blip on the PC radar. I’m not  sure that Apple would want to own a manufacturer of Windows PC’s, as well as a portable game console that is a (distant) competitor to the iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch.

What would each of them cost? Each of these potential targets currently have the following market cap (all in US$, in billions)

  • Sony: US$34.07
  • Disney: US$68.76
  • Adobe:  US$14.28
  • Netflix: US$9.33

Assuming a conservative 10% mark-up to be able to buy these companies, Apple would need about US$38 billion to buy Sony, about US$75 billion to buy Disney, about $16 billion to buy Adobe and US$10 billion to buy Netflix. Disney is basically out of reach unless Apple resorted to either debt to buy them for cash, or a combination of cash and shares. Personally, I don’t think Disney, financially, is worth it. Sony is a bit a stretch, and while I can see some synergies, Sony would need to be cheaper for it to be worthwhile, and there would be costs associated with winding down some of the businesses that don’t make sense under Apple.

Apple could buy both Adobe and Netflix and still have a bunch of money left over for a rainy day. Both make some sense in terms of synergies, and neither has that much overlap in terms of services or technologies that it would be a problem. Of the four I’ve heard, these two make the most sense.