Microsoft Xbob?

Why Xbox is an also-ran.

Today marks the debut of Xbox Live, Microsoft’s foray into the realm of online console gaming. Xbox owners who’ve been itching to challenge Paraguayan preteens to games of NFL Fever 2003 can now do so, provided they pony up $50 for the starter kit, which includes a year’s subscription to the service and a telemarketer-style headset for talking smack. Judging by the enthusiasm of beta testers, Xbox Live will snag its share of fans among hard-core gamers. It may even nudge the odd Christmas shopper away from a rival system and toward an Xbox.  But for all its hype, Xbox Live shows little promise of ending the Microsoftconsole’s status as an also-ran to Sony’s PlayStation 2, which holds roughly a 70 percent market share.

When Xbox launched last November, gaming geeks marveled at the Nvidia graphics processor and 8-gigabyte hard disk. But Xbox has never quite caught on, forcing Microsoft (which owns Slate)to make a humiliating downward revision of its sales estimates this past summer. By year’s end, Xbox will account for just 12 percent of worldwide console sales, less than a fifth of the PS2’s haul. Explanations for the discrepancy are plenty: Sony got a 13-monthhead start, Xbox’s controllers are too cumbersome, blockbusters such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City are PS2 exclusives. Too seldom mentioned, however, is Microsoft’s failure to understand a basic tenet of the console world: Cool matters, and Xbox isn’t cool.

Microsoft has never before needed to go through the motions of building a hip, edgy image—lucky for them, as cool is obviously not Bill Gates’ forte. With the computer desktop, Microsoft’s long suit, only a tiny number of users fret over their operating system’s brand. Sure, there are Apple and Linux acolytes who stare down their noses at the Great Unwashed who run XP. But for the vast majority of users, who want only to check their AOL accounts or to track their mortgage payments, there’s no cultural cachet in installing FreeBSD on their $599 Dells. Cool doesn’t sell computers—boring details like price and compatibility do.

Microsoft’s inexperience with cool, however, is a serious handicap when it comes to consoles. The average gamer is 28, but that figure includes PC gamers. Consoles skew much younger, with nearly half of players too young to vote. It’s a demographic that tends to be less enamored of such techie details as polygon counts and processor speeds and more interested in following the leads of tastemakers like rappers and athletes. So the newest sneaker has an extra layer of padding, specially designed by ex-NASA engineers? Who cares—what’s Tracy McGrady wearing? And what console is he using? (Answer: a PS2.)

Sony may be your typical heartless conglomerate, but it’s got a knack for getting its consoles into the right living rooms and Cadillac Escalades. Perhaps that’s because it’s already got a cool image from manufacturing stereos and thumping headphones, a reputation that Microsoft will never garner by churning out new versions of Excel and PowerPoint. Or maybe it’s because Sony’s “street agents” are adept at handing out freebies to the right folks. (Viewers of the current Bob Crane biopic Auto Focus will note that Willem Defoe’s character, a Sony video-recorder salesman, had this tactic down pat, targeting such 1960s pop-culture luminaries as Elvis and Dick Smothers.)

Whatever the reason, PS2’s cool factor is legit, as evidenced by what I’ll term the Name Check Index (NCI)—the number of times a product is mentioned in hip-hop lyrics. From Ludacris (“PlayStation 2 up in the ride …”) to Xzibit (“I’m with you on the PlayStation, showing you codes”), rappers frequently express their love for Sony’s console mainstay. At the funeral of recently slain Run-DMC DJ Jam Master Jay, it was noted that he occasionally played his PS2 for 22-hour stretches. Even recent British import the Streets (aka Mike Skinner), the current darling of the music press, raps about PS2 in the same breath as eating kebabs, smoking weed, drinking ale, and other staples of British lad life. Xbox, by contrast, currently has an NCI score of zero—try as I might, I could not locate a single hip-hop mention.

What’s most impressive about this musical adoration—in addition to that of myriad pro athletes such as McGrady and Houston Rockets guard Steve Francis, who recently told that he tossed out his Xbox in favor of his PS2—is that it comes so cheap. Microsoft has so far spent $500 million seeking the same buzz, only to come off seeming crusty. If Sony is your cool college-aged cousin, then Microsoft is the trying-too-hard uncle who mistakenly thinks his tale of attending a Rush concert in 1980 will earn your admiration.

Xbox’s initial marketing campaign, which cost double that of the PS2’s, has strained to appear cutting-edge. Microsoft held a giveaway in conjunction with Doritos Extreme, Frito-Lay’s hackneyed attempt to capitalize on Gen Y’s supposed infatuation with extreme sports. Microsoft also partnered with banal rap-rock outfit Linkin Park and the Association of Volleyball Professionals, festooning their respective events with Xbox paraphernalia. And recent commercials for the game Blinx the Time Sweeper—intended to give Xbox a trademark character akin to Nintendo’s Mario—embarrassingly feature a pair of old men calling one another “homey.”

Granted, launching a new tech product is never easy, especially when the competition had a year’s head start. And, yes, the fight’s far from over—Microsoft has committed $2 billion to the Xbox effort, regardless of the console’s near-term performance. With rumors swirling that Nintendo’s lackluster GameCube will soon be shelved, perhaps Xbox has a shot at winning some converts, especially if the technology in its next-generation console really dusts the PS2’s.

Or maybe Microsoft will finally feel the frustration that its rivals over at Apple do—the frustration of knowing you’ve got a technically superior product that’s fated to forever be a bridesmaid. A geek version of karmic payback, perhaps.