Sunday, September 13, 2009

Without Buttons, iPod Touch Can't Touch DS or PSP

This week, Apple made it a point to position the iPod touch as a portable gaming device, and judging by the upcoming titles on display, the touch will no doubt be a winner in gaming. But why bring up the DS and PSP? Unless and until the iPod touch incorporates physical buttons into the hardware -- or introduces some amazing haptics -- putting it up against these top dedicated portables is not an apt comparison.
Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) may be the best technology marketing company on the planet, if not the best personal technology manufacturer to date. However, when the company tries to say that the Nintendo DS and Sony (NYSE: SNE) PSP aren't cool, I'm just left scratching my head. Let's back up. What's the context here?
At Wednesday's Apple media event -- where the company announced a new version of iTunes and new iPods, including an iPod nano with a built-in video camera -- the company went to great pains to position the iPod touch as a portable gaming device.
In setting up his talk about the new iPod touch, Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, took time to dis the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP portable game devices. "When these things came out they seemed so cool," he said. "But once you play a game on the iPod touch, you know, they don't really stack up anymore. They don't have this amazing multi-touch user interface."
Huh? What? Really?
I mean, don't get me wrong -- there are dozens of killer features built into every iPod touch against which the DS and PSP fall short, but the gaming experience isn't nearly as bad as the picture Schiller wants to paint. More to the point, the DS and PSP come with a huge advantage no matter how Apple wants to spin it: the DS and PSP have buttons.
What do buttons provide? Tactile feedback and super-consistent responses to a gamer's intent. Apple multi-touch touchscreens are fantastic and responsive, but in no way do they replicate any sort of quick-and-precise action particularly well. In fact, just using my iPhone and iPod touch screens for basic applications, including Apple's built-in applications, I sometimes have to tap and swipe buttons several times to get a reaction, leaving me to wonder if my fingers have suddenly lost their faint electric charge.
Look, I'm not the first person to point out that the iPod touch doesn't have buttons and that it'll never be able to do fast action games like first-person shooters particularly well. Sure, the overall design of the DS is a bit clumsy, and the PSP a bit chunky, but they do let you play some complex, immersive games pretty darn well. Besides, there's already several decent first-person shooters in the app store (which are still hobbled by the touchscreen controls -- sorry, fans, that's right, I said "hobbled").
In a New York Times interview with ├╝ber tech reporter David Pogue, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said that customers started seeing the iPod touch as a gaming device. OK, but I'm guessing that these customers don't really represent the same gamer demographics found in the sales of the DS and PSP. As near as I can tell, most DS purchases are made by parents, and I'm guessing that most parents learn about the DS from their kids, who learn about it from other kids. The PSP, on the other hand (I'm guessing) seems to sell to an older, savvier population of kids, as well as tech-savvy gamers of all ages. Both the DS and PSP are usually bought primarily for games.
As for the iPod touch, even after all the TV ads showing off cool games, I'm just not buying the idea that most of its sales are due to its gaming prowess. That is, I believe most customers are most definitely not buying the iPod touch to play games first, and to oh, play music, browse the Web, watch movies, etc., second.
People Like Games, So the iPod Touch Must Be a Gaming Platform
It's almost as if Apple slapped a palm to its forehead and said, "Oh, wow, look at how all these App Store games are selling. 'Tap Tap Revenge,' 'Flick Fishing,' 'Sheep Launcher Plus!' We are kicking butt and taking names. Our multi-touch interface must be way better than the competition!"
So now the iPod touch is the gaming device. Not a bad way to differentiate it from the iPod nano and iPhone, but what I don't get is going after the PSP and DS. Why bother trying to knock them down at all? Apple doesn't need to, and more troubling yet, when Apple tries to knock them down, they just come off as some old guys talking on a stage. Schiller lost a lot of cred when he said the DS and PSP weren't so cool anymore compared to the multi-touch iPod.
All Schiller had to do was focus on the positive, noting that the iPod touch has evolved into an awesome gaming platform with an astoundingly vast and diverse variety of applications. Better yet, the games come in friendly price points, they are easy to buy and download, and they'll keep kids and adults alike amused for years. Tired of games? Switch to music. Or a TV show. Or a movie. Or read your email and browse the Web. There's so much goodness to talk about with the iPod touch, I'm still astounded over the belabored comparisons to the DS and PSP.
What About Buttons?
If Apple really wants to turn the iPod touch into a killer gaming device, it has to get over its multi-touch fetish and make some real buttons. Apple could do it cleanly so it wouldn't adversely affect the svelte design, and if Apple can't be bothered with buttons, the company could at least create or license an add-on device (which could work for iPhone owners, too). And you don't need a gazillion buttons, particularly with the accelerometer.
Sure, there is one problem: Game developers will need to code games that will work with a new interface that includes buttons. It might also mean they'll need to create an interface for both buttons and buttonless screen-only play. Either way, it's going to be a bit more difficult, but if there's one thing we should all have learned by now it, it's that the iPod touch audience is growing fast, is interested in games, and is willing to spend money. Development investment for killer games that use buttons will come.
And really, market size is why Ubisoft is working on "Assassin's Creed 2" for the iPod touch.
Faster Processors
The new iPod touch in the 32GB and 64GB models is up to 50 percent faster than previous-generation units, plus they feature improved performance and support for OpenGL ES Version 2.0, which Apple says lets developers create games with superior graphics. Games launch faster, and you'll get better texture and detail. This is all well and good. But where are the buttons?
Perhaps Apple is working on some amazing haptics technology that will let the screen vibrate in ways that produce the sensations of buttons and textures. Maybe if Jobs lets his designers make real buttons, he fears that haptics will never become a reality on his iPod touch.
The bottom line is, Apple's iPod touch will continue to explode as a "killer" gaming platform, but it won't be because its customers think the touchscreen interface is the best ever -- despite the fact that "Madden NFL 10" will let you draw your own passing routes on the field of play. The iPod touch will continue to do well because it a) does everything else so well, giving non-gamers an easy entry into gaming, and b) has a massive game store with a big audience that will continue to attract game developers, and c) parents see the ads on TV and they understand that they can kill two birds with one stone -- give the kid a highly desirable iPod for music and media, and give them a gaming unit, too. Besides, they also know the kid won't grow out of the iPod touch.
At the Apple media event after a games preview, Schiller noted, "Those games are just amazing, and every day we're seeing new titles come out that just blow our mind." He's right. Where he's wrong is trying to convince the world that the multi-touch interface is the best, be-all, end-all gaming interface in the world. If Apple would just give us a couple more buttons, the iPod touch could turn into a game-dominating monster.
And I think most everybody could agree and understand that.

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