Microsoft’s recent announcement of their next-generation console, the XBOX One, has raised a lot of ire in the gamer community.
The two major issues are “digital rights management” and privacy.
The Kinect is a motion sensing control interface that was introduced late in the life cycle of the XBox 360 product line, and has been generally accepted by users as a novel method of control by motion, similar in certain respects to the Nintendo Wii’s Wiimote. With XBox One, the Kinect interface is mandatory, and always on. The Kinect isn’t just a motion sensor. Unlike the Wiimote, it uses a camera and microphone to, essentially, bug your living room. This allows the XBox One to respond to voice commands, like the USS Enterprise‘s shipboard computer on Star Trek, and do other things that are pretty neat. But it also allows Microsoft to watch you live at all hours and in all states of undress, all day every day, like the two-way televisions of George Orwell’s 1984. It turns the home into a zone of no expectation of privacy.
Microsoft’s response to these concerns has been weak. They claim that you can control what the XBox is allowed to do, but can you really? It’s always on, always connected to the internet, and running Microsoft’s operating system — how hard is it for someone to gain unauthorized access to the XBox and use it to spy on you? How easy is it to imagine Microsoft rolling over for government requests to use this technology to monitor citizens suspected of “un-American” activities? How often in the past have we seen large technology companies like Yahoo! and Facebook decide to re-set user-configured preferences to defaults that they prefer, and quietly allow the savvy user who pays attention to re-opt out, again and again, until they wear down and accept the service provider’s preferences? It’s a virtual certainty that Microsoft’s click-through EULA and ToS will grant them the ability to do whatever they want with the information they gather through the device, and hold them not harmless and not liable for any damages caused or enabled by the device. And they’ll turn around and claim that they do nothing with the information that you do not authorize, as though you have control. In reality, the only control that you have at all is whether to buy the device or not.
We are already living in an age where the general public has more or less accepted a total erosion of the expectation of privacy. Is this a step too far? For anyone who thinks about it even for a moment, it would seem to be. Yet, almost no one seems to behave as though they think about it at all. We use the services of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and so on, sharing very personal information about ourselves, often in full public view, and certainly in full view of the service provider, their partners, and anyone who eventually buys them out. We willingly pay Verizon, AT&T, and others hundreds of dollars a year for the convenience of carrying tracking devices that monitor our locations, what we read, who we know, what we buy. We send emails un-encrypted, containing sensitive personal information that is easily intercepted and re-transmitted to anyone in the world. The NSA sucks all of it up into giant datacenters, and apart from a few headlines, barely any notice is paid. And for the most part, nothing happens, and we don’t seem to care.
In a nutshell, DRM, as implemented for XBox One, means that you do not own the game you thought you bought. You don’t even own the copy — the physical media you own, but all the physical media is a transport vessel. The data on the media is intellectual property, owned by the copyright holder, who controls how it can be used. You own the “license” to play the publisher’s intellectual property — under their terms, which they can change at any time, for as long as they continue to exist, or decide to continue allowing their intellectual property to be made available.
You do not retain the ability to transfer your “rights” to someone else, either as a gift, loan, or re-sale — unless the publisher decides to allow it, and then only through some approved process wholly controlled by them.
It is an extremely raw deal for the consumer, and something which no one should allow to stand.
Of course, ridiculous, draconian licensing terms are nothing new to commercial software. It’s been around for decades, from the earliest days of Microsoft and the personal computer. It’s just that, for most of this time, it hasn’t mattered to consumers, because there was no way to enforce many of the terms stipulated in EULAs, and circumvention was trivial.
It’s been all over the internet by now, with virtually every source that I’ve been able to find coming out against Microsoft’s policies. Here are just a few links:
All of this comes at a time when the game industry is struggling to figure out a business model that works. The internet, digital distribution, piracy, in-game purchase, free-to-play, freemium, lowered barriers to entry enabling indie developers and hobbyist developers, and other rapid changes have made it very difficult for many companies to remain profitable. This response by Microsoft is the most heavy-handed, top-down approach that we’ve seen so far, and cannot be the future of videogaming entertainment.
It is a future with no history — when the publishers DRM servers are shut off, an entire generation of gaming will be lost forever, never to be seen again. And so it must be a future with no future, as well. An informed consumer who understands the issues at play and what’s at stake, could only reject a product offered on these terms. It is up to gamers to educate the general public to stand firm against this.
There are alternatives. The upstart Ouya console is perhaps the best of them in the current generation.