Unboning the Xbone
The official line on the Kinect-free Xbox One model will be about choice. Giving consumers choices. This is a lie, of course. More blatant than, "As excited as we are about the new Xbox One option, clearly if you use Xbox One with Kinect, you have the best experience," which is easily internalized. Microsoft had already tried to assuage early adopters and entice fence sitters when it firmly announced, "no plans" for a Kinect-free Xbox One less than three months ago.
But here we are. And you are free to be bitter in the face of this if you picked up an Xbox One on this assurance (maybe, too, you learned something). Still, it's the right decision for Microsoft, whose nebulous 5 million consoles shipped doesn't touch Sony's over 7 million sold.
The hubris Sony carried into the PlayStation 3 launch -- $600 US dollars, et al -- was understandable. It was coming off of the PS2's ludicrous success. It cost Sony short term, but that stress benefited consumers as Sony played catch up. It bore PlayStation Plus, set up to ease users into eventually paying for multiplayer as it was. Even if you're clinging to Live membership to play with your friends, I think Sony ended up with the better console and library, while its sales caught up over the year.
This shaming also shaped the PlayStation 4's presentation. It was pared down. Not a multimedia device. It was for games. Sony lumbered like a defensive lineman running back a fumble to get to the point of outclassing the 360 during the waning years of that console life cycle and continued it into the new launch. That's why Microsoft's hubris with the Xbox One was so surprising and why there has been such a backlash. Let's not forget the "always online" debacle. And that's without even owning the market at the point.
Sony encouraged owners to rush out and buy a camera with the novelty of Twitch and that Playroom. Microsoft shipped with a mandatory camera and got Twitch support months after launch and just today took Twitch (and Netflix, Hulu, etc.) out from behind the Xbox Live pay gate
It's obvious the Xbox One is shaping itself in the PlayStation 4's image to make it seem comparable, to make it seem like a choice between the two. Media apps outside of the pay gate. $400 price parity (is the à la carte Kinect going to cost $100, or will it be less, upsetting early adopters more?) These moves are responses. Sony spent a couple years warming people up to the idea of paying to play online. You might even be inclined to consider it a fair shake on both sides.
On Xbox One, Games with Gold will now require an active Xbox Live Gold subscription in order to continue playing any free games you've downloaded. It's taking cues from PlayStation Plus without having having built up the same good will.
Microsoft's rare willingness to dial it back here, to not stick its fingers in its ears and go, "la la la the Kinect is great," is good for us. It's not great for early adopters, from whom they've extracted that Kinect tax in droves while assuring everyone else would have to pay it, too. Like putting games-man Phil Spencer as the new Head of Xbox, the Kinect-free Xbox One is part of a new, conciliatory business strategy to try and make amends to the markets Sony is winning with.
Microsoft is a company that deals in hundreds of billions of dollars and the Xbox division is a small part of that, a part some major shareholders want to do away with completely. It was never going to be a Nintendo, obstinately sticking to its guns. It's going to find and choose whatever identity works. Right now, that means no mandatory Kinect. It's all about choice.