At E3, the iPod’s long white shadow of success

Every May, the electronic entertainment industry holds a three-day trade show known as E3 – the Electronic Entertainment Expo. Although the specific products change, the flavor of the show is pretty much the same from year to year: it’s a full-frontal assault on the senses of sight and sound, spread out over three large convention halls at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Because of the media attention the show always receives, virtually every important new piece of game hardware or software is revealed in some way at E3. And this year was no different: all three of the world’s biggest game hardware companies debuted new consoles, along with the games they expect to be top sellers through the end of 2005.

But to the surprise of the show’s attendees, there was one conspicuous new influence at this year’s E3 – the iPod – and as with many of the product’s earlier successes, its presence was all the more impressive because it appeared to be unplanned. Contrary to rumors that surfaced back in February, Apple had no formal presence on the show floor; a handful of employees apparently attended, but nothing more. Yet a booth dedicated to the iPod or Apple products wasn’t necessary: despite or perhaps because of the show’s competing high-volume audiovisual presentations, iLounge editors saw numerous attendees wearing Apple’s signature white earbuds on and off the show floor, enjoying their own music as they walked from booth to booth. We even noticed some people toting lanyard-equipped iPod shuffles on their necks. It was an odd, though impressive set of iPod sightings given that the show practically screams for its participants’ undivided attention.

Shhhh: Microsoft Hearts Apple

And then there was Microsoft’s booth. It wasn’t exactly a surprise that Microsoft was using Apple’s Power Mac G5 computers for next-generation Xbox development: iLounge’s Editor-in-Chief noted as much in an article for Xbox Nation magazine last year. But no one expected that come E3, Microsoft’s new “Xbox 360” console demonstrations would be lightly disguised fakes running off of Apple technology. The company’s booth included a collection of display kiosks with empty Xbox 360 shells in their glass windows, distracting viewers from the two G5 towers hidden inside.

 

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To let gamers taste the power of Microsoft’s new console, each dual-processor Power Mac G5 included two nVidia GeForce FX 6800 Ultra cards. The revelation that Apple’s machines were propping up the new Xboxes caused chuckles amongst attendees and had at least one of the booth’s floor demonstrators defensively declining to assist in our photography efforts. “It’s the same computer that’s on [Apple’s] site,” he testily explained. “You can go there to get pictures of it.” His comments aside, photos of the Apple-powered Xbox 360 displays spread rapidly across the Internet by the end of the show’s first day.

That wasn’t Microsoft’s only appropriation of Apple designs at the show. Several days earlier, Microsoft Corporate Vice President J. Allard was an unlikely source of praise for the iPod, suggesting that it had influenced the design and coloration of the company’s new Xbox 360 game console, and pledging to follow Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ diversification of the iPod family. In subsequent comments, Microsoft Game Studios General Manager Shane Kim claimed that the Xbox 360 would interface with the iPod and other devices to download music and photographs to the new game console’s hard disk. Further substantiation of the feature’s implementation was not provided. Seeing Apple computers powering Microsoft’s key technology demonstrations was surprising, but hearing Microsoft executives repeatedly mention competing iPod products rather than its own unpopular Plays For Sure music players was a step shy of jaw-dropping.

For Future Consoles, Nintendo Apes the iPod and iTunes

Even more impressive was an unexpected iPod mention at Nintendo’s E3 press conference. The Japanese company has dominated the handheld gaming market for more than 15 years, yet recently has seen the buzz for its Game Boy line diminish with Sony’s release of the PlayStation Portable (PSP). Nintendo’s newest solution? Make a more iPod-like Game Boy.

 

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In his surprise introduction of the Game Boy Micro, planned for a Fall 2005 release at an unspecified price point, Nintendo Executive Vice President Reggie Fils-Aime compared the new product to one of Apple’s most popular inventions. Game Boy Micro is “just a hair bigger and about 2/3 the weight of an iPod mini,” he told a packed audience of journalists, analysts and vendors. “No matter how tight your jeans, it will still fit in your pocket.” The metallic device uses the brightest screen ever found in a Nintendo portable, features interchangeable body shells with a wide assortment of colors and patterns, and is dramatically smaller than both Sony’s PSP and Nintendo’s recently released DS handheld.

 

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He noted that the device is capable of playing all of Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance games and thus “is not new technology,” but rather was an appeal to the “image-conscious consumer.” As with Microsoft’s iPod references, Fils-Aime’s comments were surprising: the company claims a handheld gaming market share of over 90%, but instead of following Sony’s lead in pushing the technology envelope, Nintendo chose to chase the iPod’s smaller, sleeker design cues to maintain its appeal.

That wasn’t Nintendo’s only iPod reference. In a meeting with iLounge, a Nintendo representative discussed the company’s plans for an iTunes-like game download service that will include the entire back catalog of titles released for the NES, Super NES, Nintendo 64, and possibly other consoles. Pricing and other details have not been decided, but it is believed that the company is currently exploring the release of not only all of its own titles, but those of previous Nintendo third-party game developers as well. These downloaded games will play on the company’s upcoming 2006 console Revolution, and be stored on the player’s choice of either internal flash RAM or SD cards. One prominent third-party game developer told iLounge that this was a “no brainer” good idea, offering a superior solution to pricing, manufacturing and warehousing “greatest hits” discs of classic games that have been selling briskly in recent months.

Same Place, Same Time, Next Year?

When iLounge picked up its media badges at the beginning of the show, one of the show’s personnel asked us, “iPod? Does that really qualify as electronic entertainment?” We almost laughed. Even today – with its four token built-in games – the answer is unquestionably yes. Regardless of whether Apple set up a booth at E3, its presence was felt in every one of the convention’s halls. The long white shadow of the iPod influenced the aesthetic designs of two brand new game consoles, say nothing of Sony’s earlier design of the PSP. And there’s no longer any doubt as to Apple’s substantial influence on everything from the Xbox 360’s hardware to the future of digital media downloading software.

Given all of this, we’re hoping that by this time next year, there will be a place at the show for iPod lovers to congregate. Add our names to the list of people hoping for an official Apple presence on the show floor – so long as it’s not at Kentia Hall. But if Apple doesn’t show up, we’ll survive. Surely even more people will be walking the show floor with white earbuds in place – and at a gaming convention, that sight alone is pretty impressive, as far as we’re concerned.

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