The evolution of gaming consoles from chunky plastic boxes that often involved focused breathing-into in order to get them to function to curvy plastic boxes, twice the size of their predecessors, that occasionally need to be wrapped in towels to enable functionality, has been pretty incredible. With online access, downlowadable applications, and media playback pretty much standard anymore (unless you're Nintendo), consoles have come a long way in regards to catching up to a PC's versatility. At the same time, this headlong rush towards "progress" and "parity" may be starting to drift a bit from a console's primary intent, as a platform upon which to play games.
Not that I'm against the idea of gaming machines doing non-gaming stuff in general; not at all, actually. My Xbox 360 is my go-to DVD player, as my PS2 was, occasionally, beforehand. Blu-ray functionality was one of the primary reasons I finally caved and got a PS3 earlier this year. The 360's Netflix implementation has the best interface of all the Instant Queue versions I've tried (including PS3, Wii, and PC), and last.fm on the same system breathed some new life into my account, to which I felt I'd just been pointlessly scrobbling since I mostly stuck to my massive, on-computer music library rather than looking at any of the recommended playlists or other features the service offerred.
With as much advancement as has been made towards allowing consoles to do more than anyone ever expected them to, however, there've been plenty of attempts at just shoehorning in new functionality that feel like soulless cash-in attempts, and run just as well. I'd argue right off the bat that the Twitter and Facebook apps available for my Android phone, which is vastly less of a technical powerhouse than my Xbox, are much more intuitive, practical, and worthwhile than the trash you can download from the XBLM. While in both cases, these apps are free, the Android versions manage to give me almost all the capabilities at hand when browsing Facebook and Twitter directly on the web, and the 360 versions... throw my Avatar in there somewhere, doing the same crap he does on my Friends List and the My Xbox menu stream. I'd be better off just looking down at my phone than wasting HDD space with these mediocre, console-based apps.
Another fear I have is oversaturation. Between the slew of new content providers hitting Xbox Live with their next big update, and the Playstation 3's old slogan of, "It only does everything," I feel there's an aim to try to make today's game consoles "Renaissance Machines," capable of doing anything, and in doing so, avoiding the chance to do any of those things in a wow-worthy fashion. As much as Nintendo has lagged behind the times on many fronts, you have to give them some credit for recognizing their systems' role in the scheme of things. Big N's machines across the board play some pretty great games, lack of HD aside, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone whose downloaded WiiWare channels outnumber the games they've downloaded to their system.
And besides, more and more of the extra functions available to console owners every month seem to have subscription fees tied to them. Especially in troubled economic times, there're only so many consumers who can afford to pay yearly for online service, and then stack things like Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBOGo, MLB coverage, or whatever else may be out there or on its way down the pipe on top of it all. I get that the idea is to provide choices, and no one's expected to grab everything any system has to offer save for your average Joe McBajillionaire, but I think it would be more enticing if Xbox Live Gold and PSN+ came with some incentives toward other subscriptions. Discounts for using console versions, special console-only promotions throughout the year... something to give the console side justification in a world where HDMI outs on computers aren't uncommon, nor are HDMI inputs on televisions.
That's not to say it's all a mess right now. Xbox Live's forthcoming move to tie disparate console functions together with their Bing search engine feels like a big step in cleaning up a selection that feels kind of cluttered as of late. While far less prone to remarkable change, the Playstation 3's XMB continues to be a fairly good way of organizing everything your system can do, shift in marketing campaign or not. There seems, occasionally, to be a delay in adopting and offering new options for system owners and actually tweaking them into something those owners actually want and can readily use, but there're clear signs that the people finding these content partners know they need to follow up to make that content (and therefore, their partnerships) worthwhile.
While there's still plenty of room for critical analysis and refinement in some realms, such as making text input on consoles either easier or more readily available (through things like text-to-speech, bundles with keyboards/chatpads included, or lower prices on such accessories), the shift of consoles toward a more well-rounded, computer-esque role in the home seems to be a mostly good thing. I just hope that, along the way, developers and producers consider more deeply the potential for intermingling game and non-game applications (throwing Trophies on your Facebook page had best be a baby-step), and keep in mind some of the key reasons consumers turn to consoles in the first place. If video gaming devices are going to remain the option of choice for those looking for something that will play games consistently for several years, on an even remotely competeitive level with upgradable, ever-changing PCs, cluttering save space with software and wasting processor power on other tasks that could be put towards bigger, faster, and otherwise better games are caveats that need to be avoided.