Why iTV won't be for gaming

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Writing for Next Gen , Aaron Ruby opines that Apple may be prepping a video game console competitor in the form of the television interface that Steve Jobs previewed at an event in San Francisco. If you recall, the yet-to-ship, temporarily-named iTV promises to wirelessly stream movies, music, and other media files from a computer to a connected TV set. But Ruby thinks it will do much, much more:

Instead of using games to gain convergence, Jobs and company may just use music and video to wrap up games into a neat set-top bundle.

I think Ruby’s totally off base, and here’s why.

His hypothesis is built off speculation that Apple will incorporate IEEE 802.11n wireless networking into the iTV—something Apple’s not ready to confirm. (Jobs inscrutably referred to iTV’s networking technology as “802.11” networking during his presentation, which has led to all the guessing.) What’s more, Disney boss Bob Iger told attendees of a recent Goldman Sachs confab in New York that iTV will have a small hard disk drive. This, combined with a recent patent Apple filed for a new handheld electronic device, adds up to the possibility of the iTV as a game console, at least in Ruby’s mind.

I’ve spent the last two days forming a point-by-point rebuttal on technical grounds why I think iTV, or whatever Apple will call it when it ships next year, isn’t going to be Apple’s answer to a game console. Each time I wrote, I got to a certain point where I just had to stop typing and say to myself, “This isn’t right.”

This was usually followed by me laughing to myself. The idea is so totally from outer space, I couldn’t even figure out why I gave it enough thought to form a rebuttal.

I finally figured out what was wrong: It’s not that iTV won’t be a game console or an interface to let Mac users play games on their computer at all—that much is as patently obvious as the nose on your face, even if Ruby wants to delude his readers into thinking a device being billed as a way to watch digital downloads is a “trojan apple.”

It’s Apple itself that makes the conclusion problematic.

Apple is so far away from being able to complete with Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo as a games developer, the mere idea is beyond ludicrous. It’s absolute fantasy.

These are companies that invest millions of dollars annually into developing technology and evangelizing that technology to game developers. Apple’s efforts, by comparison, are little more than a teardrop in the ocean.

Apple certainly employs a games partnership developer relations manager—he’s a nice guy, a relatively new hire who replaces someone who recently left Cupertino to explore greener pastures in Redmond, Wash. I met the new guy in August at the Worldwide Developers Conference. And Apple has long had a section of its developer Web site dedicated to games technology. Apple even offers an area on its Web site for consumers interested in Mac gaming, though the page is buried so deep, it’s basically impossible to find unless you know where to look.

Apple’s core focus—the thrust of its development of Mac OS X and Mac hardware—isn’t on gaming at all. Gaming is a sideline issue for Apple. Some of the technology Apple’s been working on is certainly beneficial for games, however.

As the entire operating system gets more dependent on OpenGL graphics for core visual effects and image processing, game performance is getting better. Apple has taken strides like multithreaded OpenGL —a technology that right now is only available to users of Mac Pros and new Intel Core 2 Duo-based Macs, but isn’t currently supported in any shipping games.

Apple’s taken stewardship of OpenAL, a positional audio standard that some games use for 3-D sound—as long as you’re using an audio card from M-Audio or an interface like the Griffin FireWave.

But make no mistake—improvements to OpenGL wouldn’t have been made if they didn’t suit Apple’s broader agenda: making Mac OS X a better platform for digital content creation.

And beyond those examples, Apple’s done precious little to foster much interest in making Mac OS X a premier game development platform. Ask any developer who has actually spent time coding a Macintosh game, and they’ll tell you that for the most part, they’re left on their own. There isn’t a tremendous amount of developer support within Apple for game makers. And outside of a few pockets here and there on the Internet, there isn’t exactly a thriving community of Mac game developers, either.

Whatever iTV turns out to be, I'm sure it’ll be great. But I don’t think it’ll replace the Wii, Xbox 360, or PlayStation 3 on any gamer’s wish list.

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