By combining all of these features with a fancy touch-screen remote control, the Wii U may be the best multiscreen viewing device yet invented. Even more important, it will serve as an accessible entry point for millions of people who can’t wrap their heads around today’s confusing array of video-on-demand services.
People have long used game consoles to ease into new kinds of media. The fact that the PlayStation 2 could play DVDs won over many people who didn’t realize they wanted higher-def movies. It was a symbiotic relationship—DVDs helped Sony sell north of 150 million PS2s, and the huge success of the console helped the medium gain traction, ensuring that it didn’t go the way of the Laserdisc.
The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 have gone well beyond the PS2 in terms of non-game functionality. In addition to playing physical media—Blu-ray discs in the case of the PS3—both Sony and Microsoft have set up online stores to sell or rent downloadable video content to gamers. The current generation of consoles and streaming services have developed the same sort of symbiotic relationship as the PS2 did with DVD makers. People who could never be bothered to buy and configure a standalone streaming box like the Roku now have Web-enabled game consoles connected to their TVs. According to Microsoft, nearly half of the Americans who have Xbox 360’s premium online service consume at least 30 hours of TV shows and movies through the device every month. I am one of them. I spend more time watching Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Netflix, and HBOGO on my 360 than I do playing games.
Nintendo long resisted this approach—its competitors were vast conglomerates, while it simply wanted to be a game company. Though its game discs use the same sort of spinning optical drive that DVDs require, the Wii does not play DVDs. But as streaming video became more popular, Nintendo relented, joining Microsoft and Sony in letting customers add services like Netflix and Hulu to their consoles. Even so, the Xbox 360’s video features are far more robust than those available on the Wii—a major reason why Microsoft’s console has been selling much better than the Wii for the last two years.
After being late to embrace multimedia with the Wii, Nintendo has gone for it wholeheartedly with the Wii U. The promise of unifying all of your media devices and manipulating them from a touch screen may even appeal to people who have zero interest in games. Microsoft has moved in this direction as well, recently launching a clever app called SmartGlass, which turns almost any tablet or smartphone into a touch-screen remote for the Xbox 360, and it promises a range of services similar to what Nintendo will offer. But, unlike with the Wii U, there’s no promise of connecting to your DVR or live TV. Nintendo, after all these years, is finally ahead of its rivals. Now the question is whether it can stay there.