Comparisons between iPhone and the Wii have already been fairly abundant simply because the two have arguably garnered the top spots in “electronic gadget mindshare” for at least a year each. But looking at the demos today, I think the iPhone could be on its way to being the Wii of portable devices – literally.
The Wii’s success, for anyone who has somehow managed to miss the nearly ubiquitous white controllers, which now show up anywhere anyone wants to be cool, is a revolutionary control concept where people tilt, “throw,” swing and otherwise make real life motions with a controller to interact with video games. Unlike playing bowling or golf on a PlayStation or Xbox where it is essentially a different, very electronic experience, playing bowling on the Wii feels almost real, right down to the injuries. I myself, along with numerous friends, have ended up with bowling shoulder thanks to the realistic motions of the game.
What the Wii has done is make people demand that video games start to live up to the concept of virtual reality not by some silly headset that immerses one’s sight, or even eye popping graphics, but by allowing real life simulation of movements. Though I use to be a gamer, I had not touched a video game in a very long time when I went out to the store and bought a Wii – that’s why the Wii is succeeding so amazingly well, non-gamers and past gamers alike are joining with the hard core players in their Wii enthusiasm.
So what does this have to do with the iPhone? With Apple’s big software development kit announcement today, Apple has turned iPhone into a true software platform without the need for hacks. This is critical for enterprise adoption of Apple’s phone – and certainly that is why Apple made a big deal out of the enterprise aspect in the ramp up to today’s event – but it also opens up a lot of other possibilities, and those possibilities were explored via no less than three game demos on the iPhone today.
If one watches Sega’s “Super Monkey Ball” demo, it is hard not to think of the Wii – the game’s movement is driven by the phone’s motion sensor (originally used for things like rotating the web browser and photos when you turn the phone) and appears to play much like some stages of “Super Mario Galaxy” on the Wii – a ball is rolled about by tilting the controller. That in itself makes the possibility intriguing, but surely not enough to give Nintendo and Sony any reason to loose sleep over their much more traditionally controlled portable game players – after all, cell phone games usually look terrible and play slowly.
But seeing the demo showed something else: the iPhone and iPod touch have surprisingly good graphics capabilities – capabilities that allowed a demo created in just two weeks to have visuals that looked ready for comparison with the PlayStation Portable and easily besting those on the Nintendo DS. What does this mean? For Apple, it means the iPhone just got more affordable. With EA and Sega already on board, it looks like Apple has the momentum to attract game developers – particularly with the possibilities using the motion sensor – and that means that many people looking for a phone and a device like a PSP can just buy an iPhone and avoid the purchase of multiple separate devices. The combined value proposition has already helped the iPhone and this should help accelerate that. The argument works for the iPod touch, too. Perhaps best of all, Apple could claim the position of offering the first major gaming platform to use entirely electronic distribution, thanks to its iTunes Store infrastructure.
Moreover, this move will help Apple get game developers use to programming with OS X native tools such as Xcode, Objective-C and OpenAL, all of which will help bring more and better optimized games to the full fledged Mac – and to the Apple TV. Say again? Yes, I said Apple TV. Given that its primary competition as a “media hub” is increasingly coming from game systems – namely Microsoft’s Xbox, which already offers movie downloads, and Sony’s PlayStation 3, which includes a Blu-ray drive and will soon also offer movie downloads – if Apple is wise, it should be considering the possibility that it should strike out into the full fledged console market lest those two competitors use game consoles as a Trojan horse to attack Apple’s multimedia empire. If Apple can develop trust with massive game developers like EA, this would be a boon to such a pursuit. But more on why that makes sense another time.
What is clear today is Apple has fired the opening salvo in not just one but two fronts. The enterprise is critically important, and today’s announcements seem to show Apple is serious about competing with Windows Mobile and RIM’s Blackberry. But, one ought not to underestimate the import of Apple’s move deeper into its stronghold of consumer entertainment.
With a dramatic sense of understatement, Apple could very well be getting ready to “play beyond” in an entirely unexpected market.
Timothy R. Butler is editor-in-chief of Open for Business.