At What Point Do We Stop Calling These Things ‘Game Consoles’?

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Xbox Live chief Marc Whitten demonstrates the Xbox 360's new SmartGlass feature at Microsoft's E3 event on June 4, 2012

It streams movies, TV shows and sports. It’s getting a new music service. And a web browser. And a new technology which lets it talk to phones and tablets.

Did I mention it plays games?

In case you haven’t figured out yet, “it” is Microsoft’s Xbox 360. On Monday, at E3‘s first big event, Microsoft made a flurry of announcements about its game console. By the end, Xbox felt less like a game console and more like a Swiss Army Knife of living-room entertainment than ever. It felt like…a PC. A PC that happens to be tailored to amusement rather than productivity.

We’re talking Microsoft here, so the Xbox 360’s increasingly PC-like personality feels like a natural evolution. At E3, I chatted with Marc Whitten, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for Xbox Live, and asked him what Xbox 360 stood for. “All the entertainment you want, with the people you care about,” he instantly answered.

But if Microsoft has figured out the future of game consoles–that games are no longer the uncontested overarching application–it seems to be ahead of the E3 curve. As usual, nearly every square foot of space in the convention’s two cavernous halls was devoted to games. And Microsoft’s principal competitors don’t seem to be following its lead.

Sony and Nintendo’s personalities as purveyors of video games are as different as Goofus and Gallant, but the two companies’ events addressed the non-gaming capabilities of their respective consoles in similar fashion. Sony’s Monday-evening bash began with games, paused momentarily for a mention of the various entertainment services available for the PlayStation 3, then went back to games, games and more games. On Tuesday morning, Nintendo spent most of its time showing off the first titles for its upcoming Wii U, with an aside that the console would also do video from Amazon, Hulu, Netflix and YouTube, but that there wasn’t time to go into the details.

After the events, I got face time with both Jack Tretton, president of Sony Computer Entertainment of America and Satoru Iwata, president of Nintendo. With each gaming honcho, I noted Microsoft’s beyond-gaming emphasis and asked whether their own presentations’ focus on game titles meant that they weren’t all that interested in all the other things their consoles could do.

Both Tretton and Iwata told me, in effect, that the single most crucial overarching purpose of their respective systems is still to be platforms for really fun games. But they went on to say that other applications are a big deal.

Tretton said that Sony decided that its primary goal at this E3 was to make sure that its core customer base–serious gamers–knows that the company is still completely dedicated to providing them with the types of games they want, six years into the PS3’s life cycle. He told me that folks already know that the console has access to a solid selection of entertainment services, and so Sony didn’t need to dwell on them at its event.

Iwata, meanwhile, said that Nintendo chose to discuss video only briefly because E3 is a gaming show, and so the focus should be on games.

But he then went on to spend several minutes explaining to me that the Wii U, with its wireless touchscreen controller, could be a breakthrough device for video, web content and other applications besides games. He didn’t provide specific examples, but said that the controller could provide interfaces that made it easier to find stuff to watch on TV, and that many people would prefer to read text content such as web pages on a small, close-up screen rather than on a distant TV.

So Sony and Nintendo aren’t rejecting the non-game applications of game consoles.  They’re just saying that this year’s E3 wasn’t about them. And neither company has moved aggressively in Microsoft’s beyond-games direction.

At least not yet. We may have to wait until next year’s show before it’s clear whether Microsoft’s repositioning of the Xbox 360 turned out to be an important moment for the industry, or just an important moment for Microsoft.