Microsoft's secret weapon for making its Xbox One compete with Sony's wildly popular PlayStation 4 is coming from a surprising place: Windows.
With the release of the Windows 10 operating system on Wednesday, Microsoft is laying the groundwork for the future of the Xbox One game console. First and foremost: yes, Windows 10 is coming to the Xbox One, though it's not clear exactly when that will be. And though that's nice, it's not what we're talking about here.
The future of the Xbox One bridges the gap between your living room and your office, bringing your favorite PC games to Microsoft's games console.
The first clue to that future is in the Windows 10 Xbox app, and one particular function of that app: streaming Xbox One games to your home computer. Perhaps you're lounging in your sun room, listening to Tina Turner's seminal "Private Dancer" album and feeling an urge to play Xbox One exclusive "Rise of the Tomb Raider" (the unreleased next chapter in the "Tomb Raider" franchise). You pick up your Windows 10-powered Surface Pro tablet, open the Xbox app, and – BOOM – you're in.
Simply select your Xbox One and boot the game. You've got instant access to every game on your Xbox One, making Xbox One games instantly playable on your Surface Pro tablet. It's pretty magical.
But what if you could do the opposite? What if you could boot up your Xbox One and suddenly have access to everything on your home PC, from games to film to...well, anything? Very appealing!
The first issue with using a game console like the Xbox One to operate a full-on computer is not having a mouse/keyboard setup. The Xbox One doesn't actually support mice as it is (it does support keyboards via USB). Not yet anyway – here's Spencer on Twitter on July 21 talking about that support coming "soon":
Keyboard and mouse support for Xbox [One] would need to be there for this to work, those aren't far away.
Even more telling of Microsoft's ambition is Spencer's answer when asked directly about the ability to operate a Windows 10 computer through an Xbox One:
Still finishing Xbox to Win10 streaming right now. I like the idea of Win10->Xbox One streaming but don't have a plan yet.
And that comment on Twitter is far from the first time that the head of Xbox has spoken about bringing PC functionality to the Xbox One through streaming. He told me in January (at my previous employer, Engadget) during the big debut of Windows 10 that, "It's something that we're really looking at. This announcement was what we had, but if you think about that vision – my games are my games, wherever I am–- we want to be able to land solutions that are as native as the one we showed there."
Let's be clear: The PlayStation 4 is dramatically ahead of the Xbox One, both in terms of sales and critical reception.
But Microsoft's regaining mind share every day – if not market share – and it's doing that with measures of goodwill. The first step was the company's unveiling of backwards compatibility: your old Xbox 360 games will soon work on your Xbox One.
It can't be overstated how important this is.
The Xbox 360 was one of the most popular game consoles ever made and had a rabid following. More importantly: Sony's PlayStation 4 has no parallel. Even if it offered the same functionality, the PlayStation 3 was nowhere near as popular as the Xbox 360 (in terms of sales and critical reception).
If Microsoft were to bring your existing PC game library to the Xbox One, that would be another major coup in the battle for hearts and minds of consumers. In the eyes of many longtime game players, PC gaming is the holy grail of platforms. It's where games look prettiest, are most versatile, and can be truly unique. It's where oddities like "Goat Simulator" get their first chance at life, and where blockbusters like "Minecraft" are born.
To bridge the gap from PC to Xbox One would be huge, and it looks like that's the next step for Microsoft's Xbox division.