Apple iOS 7 & Gamepad: A Super Hero API or Just a Hero Complex?

Greg Bates, June 17th, 2013

In Tech Digest, Gerald Lynch suggests that Apple’s move to support made for iPhone and iPad (MFi) consoles and controllers with an API in iOS 7 is a game changer. Does it spell doom for Microsoft’s Xbox, Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Nintendo’s Wii U? Although not official, it certainly seems correct that Apple’s support for third party controllers that are made for idevices like the iPhone and iPad is in the offing, as chatter and the graphic below, courtesy of Appleinsider, suggests.

Apple’s track record of disrupting markets certainly supports Lynch’s prediction. From Research in Motion Jim Balsillie scoffing at a phone without a keyboard way back in 2007, only to his Blackberry business destroyed, to Microsoft’s Bill Gates saying that Apple’s OS would never threaten Windows, (among many examples), the iOS 7 API looks to herald Apple’s reinvention of another large industry.

Source: Apple's Developer Portal via Appleinsider

But let’s take a closer look. Apple’s efforts aren’t always game changers. How’s the iBookstore doing? It remains in third place behind Kindle and Nook. (And, unbelievably, Apple’s ebooks still aren’t available on the Mac and won’t be until the next version of its iOS ships later this fall. Meanwhile, Amazon’s Kindle books have been on the Mac for years.) Apple provides free software that can produce beautiful interactive multi-media books that are light years ahead of what you can do on a Kindle or Nook. But it may turn out that multimedia books will, regardless of their growth, fail to disrupt the long standing words-and-photo tomes that we see in print and now e-book form. The book may be losing its trees to inhabit a new electronic forest, but there’s little evidence that the age-old habit of curling up with the written word, sans interactivity, is under any threat.

How about Apple TV? It’s an area of “intense interest,” CEO Tim Cook says, elevating the focus from “a hobby” back in Steve Jobs’s day. But so far it’s been years since Apple TV was released, with no disruptive effect.

How about Apple’s video content on iTunes? Apple smashed competitors in the retail music business who insisted that the subscription model would win. But in TV and movies, Apple  looks ill-suited to take on Amazon’s $79 a year subscription (with free shipping on its merchandise). Because of its allergy to subscriptions, Apple has also failed to dent Netflix’s universe.

What does this mixed track record of disruption tell us about whether game consoles for the iWorld are a threat to current game boxes? The heart of the answer may lie in the API, as Lynch suggests:

“On the surface it doesn’t sound like a major deal – we’ve already had iOS gamepads from the likes of iCade and Ion. However, without any standardised API blueprint to work against, games developers had to put the effort in to optimising their titles for each manufacturer’s unique hardware control system. For many games devs, it just wasn’t worth the extra hassle to add support for a controller that only a few thousand people (at best) may own, especially when the iPhone and iPad’s touch controls worked out fine. But with the introduction of a standardised API, whatever Apple-certified gamepad you buy going forward from the release of iOS 7 will adhere to a unified design, a single system that any game dev can easily add support for.”

Still, Apple’s competitors in the gaming field are huge: Playstation 2 alone has an impressive 155 million users. But, Lynch counters, iOS devices have shot past 500 million users. Besides, installed base hasn’t turned out to be the advantage it was once thought to be. Think of Apple’s advance despite Windows’ huge installed base. Linux has also advanced.

I think a different factor may decide Apple’s level of disruption. It’s what I call “gadgepop” or gadget population. Meaning: what’s the population of gadgets you have to carry with you?  Anything that reduces the number is likely to be popular. I no longer wear a watch because I have a phone. I don’t carry a camera for the same reason. Kindles look like they provide a superior reading experience, but adding one to my population of gadgets will just up the level of chaos in my life. So I read Kindle books on my phone or computer.

Similarly, if we will soon be able to use our iPhones as controllers and consoles, then why also have one that can’t make phone calls? Might Apple, in the same way that it has reduced the need for a wrist watch and camera by incorporating those into its phone, also reduce the market for Xbox, Playstation and Wii?

I’m not sure. If we have to snap these third party gadgets onto our phone or iPad and then remove them again because they make the idevice too clunky for other uses, our gadgepop is not reduced. Current devices may even have an advantage over MFis:  we don’t have to attach them to an iPhone or iPad to make them work. These factors may significantly retard Apple’s efforts to disrupt the market.

Tags: Games, apple
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