Will the Xbox 720 be Microsoft's last, yet always up-to-date, console?

Earlier this week I read an interesting story over at Ars Technica that I haven't seen discussed anywhere else (maybe I'm just reading the wrong blogs). The piece discussed a recently published patent application from Microsoft titled Scalable Multimedia Computer System Architecture with QOS Guarantees. Ars' Kyle Orland suggests this patent could refer to the Xbox 720 and if so, it suggests Microsoft's next game console might come in, or develop into, multiple configurations.

Now the beauty of console gaming is the lack of hassle. You don't have to worry about requirements or update drivers or anything like that. Won't we lose this if we have the choice of (for argument's sake) a 4 core Xbox 720 or the more expensive 8 core model?

Not necessarily. As Orland explains, there'll be a baseline level of hardware that's dedicated to running games the way developers intend them to run. If all you ever want to do is play games, you just need the most basic Xbox 720. As you add cores (again, I'm probably over-simplifying things) your Xbox can start multi-tasking. You can play games and stream a movie to another TV, or maybe record live TV on an external hard drive. The more cores you add, the more tasks the Xbox 720 can handle at once, but the game experience remains the same.

At least that's one scenario. Another is that as years go by the Xbox 720 will get faster and faster while the basic architecture stays the same. Players who want cutting edge games will have to upgrade to the latest revision, but (presumably) game developers could create games that degrade gracefully.

This second scenario sounds like a slippery slope towards the complexities of PC gaming to me, but Orland suggests that it won't be such an issue if Microsoft embraces the discounted hardware plus monthly fee system that it's currently testing out. When we first heard about this system in May I said it was a bad deal and I still think it is for the current Xbox 360, but if we're going to move into this model of an updated game console every two years then the numbers might work out differently.

In other words, you buy an Xbox 720 for $100 and commit to a 2 year contract of $15/month. You start building your game library. When your two years are up you trade-in the old Xbox 720 and get an Xbox 720 Mk II for another $100 (or maybe considerably less if Microsoft can take your old box, update it and sell it as a refurbished Mk II) and another 2 year contract. All your old games still work and some of the more recent ones actually look better than they did (they were built to take advantage of the Mk II's additional power). All your files are in the cloud so you can pick up where you left off. Two years later you upgrade again to the Mk III, and so on. Your library never becomes obsolete and you're getting more power every 2 years instead of every 5 or 6.

Of course, you're paying $15/month indefinitely, too. I'd like to see Microsoft sweeten that deal by bundling Xbox Live Gold into the monthly fee.

All of this is totally hypothetical, of course, but it seems to me like a system that could be worth discussing. Is this too close to the complexity of PC gaming? Is that $15/month too much a barrier to entry? (I suppose you could just buy a new console every two years as well but I'm guessing that'd be more expensive.)

Or are consoles doomed to go the way of the 8-track tape deck, giving way to mobile devices that can connect to a TV and cloud-based gaming from OnLive and similar services? Comments?

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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